Pictured above: Freeholder Director Tom Arnone

NEW JERSEY — A proposed bill to alter the title from Board of Chosen Freeholders to the Chosen Board of County Commissioners, has gained backing from three top Democratic lawmakers, which likely guarantees it will pass when considered next Thursday by a Senate committee. Removing “freeholder” from New Jersey’s 21 county legislative boards will mean the country’s full eradication of the title. According to Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson, who addressed the subject with Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney during an event at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside on Thursday, the title freeholder is "confusing, insensitive and racist". 

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The New Jersey's first constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence, stated a county representative must be worth, “fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same and have resided in the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election." At the time, African American slaves and women were not able to own property, and thus were prevented from holding public office. “As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism,” Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin said in a joint statement.

Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger, (Monmouth-R), former Monmouth County Freeholder and former Middletown Mayor (6 times), states, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic with the state budget facing a $10 billion hole, unemployment in disarray, the DMV with long lines and fist fights at its locations, and businesses going under every day, and now Governor Murphy has decided to focus his energy on changing the name freeholder? This is absurd!”

An archeologist by trade, it is not the first time that Assemblyman Scharfenberger has spoken out with regard to historical aspects, “For hundreds of years we have had county freeholders to the complaint of no one - men and women of all races, ethnicities, and creeds have proudly served their counties as elected freeholders. “Using this logic, we should also change the terms governor, senator, and mayor because those titles existed hundreds of years ago and have their historical problems associated with them...Now we’re going to spend wasted hours and countless financial resources changing the name of an elected office simply because it came from an era years ago and has no bearing on what it means today?” 

Scharfenberger added that he believes our society would be better suited by learning from our past as a means of demonstrating just how far we have come as a nation, state, and people as well as the need to focus on real issues. “This bizarre attempt to sanitize our language is a dangerous, slippery slope that would open the floodgates to changing everything that came before us. In short, let’s focus our attention on real problems – not media sound bites and headlines for the nightly news. Rather than celebrating the great strides we’ve made as a society, and learning from history, these clumsy attempts at censoring the past are an insult to the beleaguered taxpayers who want real substantive action to improve their lives, not meaningless, symbolic gestures during these most trying of times,” Scharfenberger concluded.

However, the proposed bill, which is expected to be considered by a Senate committee next week, has also come under fire by a sitting elected Freeholder.  Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas Arnone, who called the announcement — made in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — "mind-blowing."

“This is not the time for grandstanding and changing the title of elected officials is not going to help anyone,” Arnone, a Republican, said in a statement. “Not only will it not help, but changing the title right now is actually going to cost our taxpayers money, when so many are already struggling. We have businesses that cannot open, hundreds of businesses who are closing permanently, and more than 1.3 million people on unemployment, not to mention the thousands of residents who are being furloughed."

While Murphy said during his press briefing that the name change “doesn’t cost us anything,” Arnone countered that thousands of taxpayer dollars will need to be spent to update and change every sign, structure or material that bears the title.

“This is something that is going to take an incredible amount of time, effort and money to accomplish,” he said.  "There are countless issues that the state should be focusing on right now, including the complete mess we have had with the Motor Vehicle Commission’s reopening and getting our residents back to work.”

When Governor Murphy was asked by a reporter at Friday's press conference whether other similar changes were forthcoming in the aftermath of social justice protests happening nationwide, Governor Murphy said, “I’ve got nothing else on the list right now…but we're constantly thinking that through, and we're taking advice from folks. Murphy also stated, "It is high time this name went into the dustbin of history and I'm very happy we're going to do it, I hope sooner than later,”  during his coronavirus press briefing, Friday.