New Jersey leaders want to replace ‘freeholder’ title with ‘county commissioner’

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted a call for changing the term “freeholder” to describe county-level legislators.

Murphy wrote, “As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, let us tear down words born from racism.”

The title dates back to a time before the American Revolution and translates to landowners who have no debt. Functionally, that reserved the role for white men, even if it was not explicitly written into the law then. 

Murphy joined Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin in solidarity to jettison the colonial title. The Senate announced that its Community and Urban Affairs Committee would consider a bill introduced in January to change the term “freeholder” to “county commissioner” at its July 16 meeting. The bill is sponsored by Sweeney and Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris). Sen Vin Gopal (D-Ocean) signed on as co-sponsor.

Pennacchio, in a news release, said the “simple fact” is that people have no idea what freeholder means.

“Changing the title to ‘county commissioner,’ which is used virtually everywhere outside of New Jersey, is a simple way to increase transparency and reduce confusion about how government works,” he added. 

Pennacchio supported his claim about the term being misunderstood with an article from the Bergen Daily Record. Only one out of 20 Morris County residents who were surveyed understood the meaning of the term freeholder.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.