NJ Gov. Phil Murphy

TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy today signed legislation changing the title of chosen freeholder to county commissioner and boards of chosen freeholders to boards of county commissioners.

The bill (S855) requires counties to update their letterheads, stationary and websites within a year of the bill’s effective date, Jan. 1, 2021, and allows signage to be updated as ordinary business requires.

“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,”Murphy said in a release. “Amid a national reckoning to re-examine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate the use of the term ‘Freeholder’ in county government – a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said the change of title is long overdue and refers to a time when only white male landowners could hold public office.

“As a former Freeholder, I was fully aware that this title was not inclusive of African American woman such as myself. History is constantly evolving, and our terminology needs to keep up with it to be more reflective of where we are as a society,” she said.

“As we work to bring justice and equality to all Americans, we must recognize that symbolism matters,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said. “The public job title of ‘freeholder’ perpetuates a legacy of bigotry that disenfranchised groups of Americans and denied them full rights and equal opportunities. We should be diligent in erasing all remnants of oppression that are unjust and divisive.”

“The term freeholder is outdated and it’s offensive to women and minorities,” Speaker Craig Coughlin said. “New Jersey is the only state in the country that still uses the term freeholder. It is long past time that we right this wrong and change the title to commissioner.”

The Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday, Aug. 18 supporting the change.

Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick, who proposed the idea of changing the freeholder title two years ago, said being called a commissioner will provide the public with a better idea of what they do.

“No one knows what a freeholder is unless you’re in the county bubble,” she said.

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.