Union County freeholders celebrate new statewide ‘county commissioner’ name

Photo Courtesy of Union County
Union County Freeholders Rebecca Williams, Angela Garretson and Andrea Staten join Gov. Phil Murphy in a bill-signing ceremony in Trenton on Aug. 21 for a new state law that changes the title of ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner.’

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders welcomes a new state law that changes the names “board of chosen freeholders” to “board of county commissioners” and “chosen freeholder” to “county commissioner” for all 21 counties in New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation Aug. 21, and the changeover will take place in 2021.

The title “freeholder” dates back to the 1700s. It refers to white male property owners who had clear title to their land, reflecting laws that effectively prevented most women, and practically all black Americans, from holding public office in New Jersey.

“This freeholder board strongly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, and we support efforts to break down the barrier of structural racism in all its forms,” Union County Freeholder Chairperson Alexander Mirabella said. “This change in title will finally put to rest a centuries-old concept of civic participation that is out of step with the diversity of our population and inconsistent with the principles of equality.”

“‘County commissioner’ is an inclusive title that celebrates and respects all citizens who seek to participate in the civic fabric of our community,” said Freeholder Angela Garretson, who sponsored a freeholder resolution in support of the name change and worked with colleagues at all levels of government throughout New Jersey to advocate for the change. “As one of five women on our nine-member freeholder board, I understand the historical significance and need for change. I am especially proud of the transition to a title that fully embraces the contributions of all women, minorities and/or nonprivileged members into the democratic process in New Jersey.”

“We continue to strive to represent our ever diversifying constituency,” Freeholder Andrea Staten said. “As an African American member of a majority female board, this new title is a positive and significant change for county freeholders throughout the state of New Jersey.”

“As the late, great Toni Morrison noted, language is something that we ‘do,’ it is the action verb that we perform daily. With the change to county commissioner, the state of New Jersey acknowledges that the path toward an equitable and inclusive society requires that we pay attention to how we use language to represent both ourselves and the people — as commissioners, we are entrusted to serve the people with all the meaning with which that word is invested,” Freeholder Rebecca Williams said.

Collective efforts to modernize the title have been undertaken periodically in recent years. These efforts gained momentum in recent months, following the murder of Minneapolis, Minn., resident George Floyd. The widespread actions, including many in New Jersey and Union County, challenged the persistence of institutional and structural racism in America and raised awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial inequities, at a time when the COVID-19 crisis has underscored disproportionate impacts on health and food security.