TRENTON — The state Assembly voted Thursday to change the county public office title of "freeholder" to "commissioner," sending the bill to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk.
The bill previously cleared the Senate in a 31-6 vote. The Assembly voted 61-12-4.
New Jersey remains the only state in the country to still use the colonial-era title of ‘freeholder’ that dates back to before the American Revolution when only white male owners of debt-free land could hold office.
Atlantic County Democratic Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick asked the board to support a name change in 2018, when an earlier bill was introduced to allow counties to change their names. The bill didn’t pass by the end of the session.
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Under the bill, the title of “chosen freeholder” and “boards of chosen freeholders” would be renamed to “county commissioner” and “boards of county commissioners” respectively. The bipartisan bill headed to the governor's desk is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Andrew Zwicker and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson.
“It is beyond time we change the title of ‘Freeholder’,” said Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset). “As a term dating back to before the Revolutionary War, whose meaning was historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women.
“Our racist and sexist laws and conditions historically kept people from voting, owning land, and much," he added. "Removing from New Jersey’s political titles this exclusionary term, while only a small and symbolic part of the work that lies ahead of us to break down the walls of systemic racism and sexism, is a step in the right direction.”
Counties would also be required to update their websites to reflect the title change as well as retire letterheads, stationery and anything else bearing the term ‘freeholder’ once their stock is exhausted. ordinary course of business.
“Removing vestiges of racism and sexism found in names or titles that have no place in our society today is an important step among many needed to bring an end to systemic bias,” said Reynolds-Jackson (D-Hunterdon, Mercer). “‘Freeholder’ was never an effective title for the county public office holder. For persons of color, it was more of a reminder of the sordid and oppressive ideals of its colonial-era origins. It’s time to end the confusing and hurtful conversation surrounding the term ‘freeholder’ and rename the position.”
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