County freeholders no more? Murphy, top Democrats say title ‘born from racism’ and has to go.

New Jersey is the only state in the nation where top elected county officials are still called “freeholders” — a centuries-old term that many deride as being not only confusing but racist and offensive.

Now, after years of debate, a name change may finally be in the works.

Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey’s two highest-ranking state lawmakers announced Thursday they support enacting bipartisan legislation that would require county governments in the state to switch the title of the officials from “freeholders” to “commissioners” — the term many other states use for county leaders.

While there’s been talk about abolishing the term for years, it’s never come to pass. But the new push comes as the United States continues to re-evaluate how to address racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the deaths of other unarmed Black people who have died in police custody. That has included fiery debates over whether to remove statues and other symbols linked to slavery and segregation.

“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, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — all Democrats — said in a joint statement.

“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,” they continued. “This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice.”

The bill (S855/A3594) must pass both the Senate and Assembly before Murphy could sign it into law.

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the state Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee will consider the measure at its next meeting July 16.

“It is important that we erase the terminology that reflects racist attitudes in order to eliminate the vestiges of discriminatory practices,” Sweeney said. “Let’s catch up with the rest of the world and call these officials who serve in public positions ‘commissioners.‘”

Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has a board of chosen freeholders elected by voters in those counties. The officials oversee taxpayer-funded county budgets, which pay for parks, jails, roads, and more.

The name stems from a 15th English legal term referring to a person who owned land free of debts, mortgage, or lien.

That carried over to pre-Revolutionary America. New Jersey’s first constitution, written in 1776, declared a county representative must be worth “fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same and have resided in the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election.”

Having a “clear estate” meant you were the owner — or “freeholder” — of property outright.

But proponents of dropping the name note that only landowners could hold office at the time, and because Black people and most women could not own property then, it helped ensure white men were in power. Plus, owning property during that period could have included owning slaves.

Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson, whom Murphy credited with helping push for the change, said the new bill is important as more women and people of color are elected to county boards.

“It’s such an outdated and outmoded word,” Garretson, who is Black, told NJ Advance Media. “This is about trying to reflect the diversity in our state so we can tear down a lot of systemic racism. ... This is about us moving into the 21st century.”

Plus, Garretson said, many people have no clue what the term “freeholder” means anyway — including fellow county officials across the country.

“When we travel to national conferences, we have to explain to our colleagues what we are,” she said with a laugh.

State Sen. Joe Pennachio, R-Morris, a main sponsor, pushed a similar but failed measure in 2018. He agrees that many New Jersey residents are often confused by the term.

“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,” Pennachio said.

Pennachio’s previous bill passed the state Senate two years ago but stalled in the Assembly. At the time, the all-Republican freeholder board in Ocean County passed a resolution against the measure.

Then-Freeholder John Bartlett, who has since died, told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time that supporters of the plan were “just pandering to political correctness.”

”This idea of trashing history has gone very far in this country,” Bartlett added.

There is already opposition to the new bill. John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said his group would prefer lawmakers to leave it up to individual counties whether they want to change the name.

“There are county government bodies that don’t support the name change,” Donnadio told NJ Advance Media. “If a county decides on its own to make the name change, so be it. The fact that it’s mandatory is an issue.”

He also said the term “commissioner” may lead to some confusion because there are already appointed county commissioners of parks and other services. He said the name “legislator” or “supervisor” would be preferred.

“We think the term commissioner dilutes it,” Donnadio said.

The bill would also require counties to update their letterheads, stationery, websites, and other writings within one year. They would not have to replace signs or other writings if it would require them to spend county taxpayer money.