State officials express support for retiring ‘freeholder’ title

Angela Garretson

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy announced July 9 that he supports legislation that would change the name of county elected officials from “freeholder” to “county commissioner,” abolishing the title that is both referencing a time when only white male landowners could hold public office and confusing. New Jersey is the only state that calls county elected officials freeholders. The proposal comes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests.

Murphy’s statement, which was released jointly with state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, said the move is not about political correctness.

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism,” Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin said. “It’s past time for New Jersey to phase out the term ‘freeholder’ from our public discourse — a term coined when only white male landowners could hold public office. This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice.”

When the term “freeholder” was coined, black people and most women could not own property, which kept white men in power. In addition, owning property included owning slaves.

The bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Sweeney and Sen. Joseph Pennacchio and in the Assembly by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, would have to pass in both branches of government before Murphy signs it. Pennacchio sponsored a similar bill in 2018 that did not pass.

Murphy also announced the bill proposal on Twitter, where he acknowledged the work of Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson. Garretson, the former mayor of Hillside, has been an advocate of making the change to “county commissioner.”

“We have informed the public and surveyed county officials and have sustained widespread support for righting this historic indignity,” she said in an email to LocalSource on July 13. “In fact, this movement for the name change was initiated in 2009 and has regained its momentum in the same way that the arc of justice always bends toward fairness and equity.”

Garretson pointed out that when the name “freeholder” was assigned, she would have been automatically ineligible because she is a woman.

“The circumstances are right for the change. Union County, like most other counties, is a profoundly diverse community both in its citizenry and its workforce. Even more convincing is that most counties have a diverse mix of appointed and elected officials of every creed, color, culture, background and language,” she said. “I was pleased to be part of the class of less than 5 percent of women who serve as a county legislator across the state. The governor, state legislative leaders and others are on the right side in their efforts to remove this badge that depicts inferiority. This change is necessary as we strive for inclusion, dignity, respect and equality under the law.”