N.J. Assembly bill seeks to turn 'freeholders' into 'commissioners'

N.J. Assembly bill seeks to turn 'freeholders' into 'commissioners'
March 09, 2010  Star Ledger

When Somerset County Freeholder Patricia Walsh attended a conference in Washington last year with other elected officials from counties across the nation, many were perplexed by the title on her name tag.

“People were saying to me, ‘What’s a freeholder?’” Walsh remembered yesterday. “So I scratched out ‘Freeholder’ and wrote ‘County Commissioner’ instead. Then, they knew what my role was.”

She may never have to do that again.

The state Assembly may soon vote on a bill that changes the title of the elected officials who oversee county government from “freeholder” to “county commissioner” — a move that would affect all of the state’s 21 counties. Many officials say the term is outdated, offensive and confusing.

Freeholders are akin to councilmen at the county level, presiding over county services, parks and roads. But New Jersey is the only state left to call county officials “freeholders.”

Over the last few months, many freeholders have been pushing for the name change. Monmouth and Burlington counties passed resolutions asking for the switch. New Somerset County Freehold Director Jack Ciattarelli broached the topic in his inaugural speech.

The word freeholder originated in pre-Colonial England, used to describe men who owned their land “free and clear” of the king, according to William Lutz, a linguist and professor emeritus at Rutgers-Camden. The bill denotes the term often referred to “white, male owners.”

“The meaning, in history, was a racist thing,” said Assemblyman Charles Mainor (D-Hudson), who is sponsoring the bill with Elease Evans (D-Passaic), Louis D. Greenwald (D-Camden) and Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).

Mainor said the bill will be introduced to the Assembly later this month. If it passes, it would go to the Senate. Then, Gov. Chris Christie would have to sign it.

“I think it’s going to get universal acclaim,” Schaer said.

Freeholders say many citizens have no clue what the term means, and thus have trouble understanding exactly what freeholders do. But Schaer hopes the new name will change that.

“Most people understand the term ‘commissioner,’” Schaer said. “They’ll understand what the commissioner’s duties are, and that will inspire accountability and transparency. Something as seemingly insignificant as a name change can accomplish a whole lot.”

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