TRENTON – The Senate today approved a bill authored by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Vin Gopal that would require county governments to replace the title of “freeholder” with “commissioner,” abolishing an outdated designation rooted in racist attitudes and practices.
The bill, S-855, was approved by the Senate with a vote of 31-6. “This is an outdated name that is rooted in the terminology and practices of bigotry that needs to be eliminated,” said Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “As we work to bring justice and equality to all Americans we should recognize that symbolism matters and the titles we use for public offices have meaning. We should be diligent in erasing all remnants of oppression.”
The legislation would require counties in New Jersey to change the title of “chosen freeholder” to “county commissioner” and “board of chosen freeholders” to “board of county commissioners.” It would also require counties to update their letterheads, stationery, websites and other writings within one year, but it would not have them replace signs or other writings if it would require the expenditure of county funds.
New Jersey is the last state in the country to continue to use the title of freeholder, a designation derived from an old English term that referred to “free land owners” at a time when only white men could own property. “This legislation is a long time coming,” said Senator Gopal (D-Long Branch).
“In Monmouth County, it is even more confusing where we have towns called Freehold Township, Freehold Borough and Upper Freehold. The change in name will prevent confusion and increase public participation and civic engagement in what the county government does.”
The following are statements of support for this legislation from current Freeholders in New Jersey: “Gloucester County strongly supports and encourages the title change from ‘Freeholder’ to ‘Commissioner,’” said Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger. “The name ‘freeholder’ in New Jersey is well past its expiration date. The history of this title is offensive and removing this type of language is an important step towards dismantling systematic racism in our country.”
“County Commissioner more appropriately aligns with and describes the work we do as leaders in Gloucester County,” said Gloucester County Freeholder Jim Jefferson. “We will embrace the new Office of Commissioner and once this becomes law, we will proudly serve all residents in our county with dignity and respect.”
“I applaud the effort of our Governor and State Legislature to immediately break ties with this obsolete terminology that was born out of exclusivity, misogyny, racism and privilege,” said Mercer County Freeholder Samuel T. Frisby Sr. “This shift in thinking shows many people are beginning to recognize that words have meaning and names have power. A name is not just a name, it tells people who you are, and Freeholders are not who we are nor how I want to be remembered. This is a good beginning, but there is much work to be done on our Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion journey.”