Burlington County to phase out the title ‘freeholder’ immediately

Burlington County, N.J.

The home of the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders in Mount Holly, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Officials in Burlington County aren’t waiting for the state to do away with the title ‘chosen freeholder’ for county-level lawmakers. Freeholder Director Felicia Hopson announced Tuesday that the county would begin to immediately phase out the term beginning with communications.

Hopson said the change is being implemented in light of recent protests against racial inequality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“There’s no reason for us to hold on to a name that has significant impact to slavery,” Hopson said. “We’ve got to seize the opportunity and go ahead and make this change while we have the support; while we have the attention of the lawmakers.”

The freeholder title dates to colonial times and translates to a landowner who is free of debt. In practice, only white men were able to hold the office of chosen freeholder because they were the only ones who were able to own land; Black people were considered property at the time.

Hopson, one of 19 African American freeholders in the state, praised the bipartisan legislation. She views Burlington County’s move to do away with the freeholder title as “forward-thinking” and “trendsetting.”

She will introduce a resolution at the freeholder board’s next meeting on Aug. 12 to formally change “chosen freeholder” to “county commissioner” on the county’s website, social media platforms, letterhead and other materials. Hopson said signs would be replaced over time as part of the county’s normal replacement schedule.

Gov. Phil Murphy expressed last week support for a bill that will be considered by a state Senate committee Thursday that would replace the title “chosen freeholder” for ‘county commissioner’ statewide. The bill is sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeny and state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris).

While the bill gives a replacement title for “freeholder,” it does not address Hopson’s current title, “freeholder director.”

“I guess we’ll get that answer [Thursday],” she said.

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