Murphy signs bill ending use of the term ‘chosen freeholder’

Zachary Lanning, Producer | August 21, 2020 | Politics

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2021, New Jerseyans will no longer have to Google what the term “chosen freeholder” means.

Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that replaces the term for those elected to run the state’s 21 county governments with the term “county commissioner”.

Some have called for the end of the term “freeholder” for many years, but the calls intensified this summer as nationwide protests over racial injustice shined a spotlight on monuments, traditions, and terminology that carry with them painful reminders of things like slavery and the Jim Crow era.

For example, the term “freeholder” was used in England to describe a man who owned land free of debts or legal claims, and in the colonies only freeholders could hold office.

“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” said Murphy. “Amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate … a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”

Earlier this summer, the state’s 19 Black freeholders, including Barbara Holcomb and Jonathan Young of Camden, joined together to call for the term to be replaced.

Friday, Holcomb and Young reacted to the signing of the bill into law.

“… We thank Gov. Murphy for signing this historic legislation into law and sending a clear message to people of color and women throughout New Jersey that this office is as open to them as it is to anyone else. The history of the term freeholder is rooted in misogyny, racism, and privilege. We have long believed that New Jersey’s elected officials deserve a more dignifying title, one that represents what we strive to be today, not the sins of those long ago who used the office to further the oppression of others. Now more than ever, we must encourage diverse voices to join the ranks of public service.”

Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio first introduced the bill nine years ago in what was then an effort to help clear up confusion around the role the county officials play in the everyday lives of citizens.

“As a former freeholder, I believe it is important that the public knows the substance of what a freeholder does rather than what the term freeholder is,” said Pennacchio. “The title ‘county commissioner’ will lend itself to transparency. This revamp will ensure more Garden State residents better understanding the function of this important position in county government.”

County officials are now tasked with updating letterheads, stationary, and other writings, as well as their websites within the next two years. The bill would not require counties to update or replace signs or other writings to reflect this title change if doing so would require any money to be spent. In these cases, the title would be changed whenever the writing is next updated or replaced in the ordinary course of business.