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Senate Panel Will Act on Sweeney & Pennacchio Bill Changing Outdated Term of ‘Freeholder’ to ‘Commissioner’

TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Joseph Pennacchio announced today that a Senate committee will take up their legislation that would require county governments to replace the title of “freeholder” with “commissioner,” abolishing an outdated designation rooted in racist attitudes and practices.

New Jersey is the last state in the country to continue to use the title of freeholder, a designation derived from an old English term that referred to “free land owners” at a time when only white men could own property – and that property could include slaves, Senator Sweeney noted.

“The time has come to change the name of freeholder to commissioner in order to do away with a title that is mired in the language of slavery,” said Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “It is important that we erase the terminology that reflects racist attitudes in order to eliminate the vestiges of discriminatory practices. Let’s catch up with the rest of the world and call these officials who serve in public positions ‘commissioners’.”

Senator Pennacchio noted that only one out of twenty Morris County residents understood the term “freeholder,” when asked by the Daily Record.

“The simple fact is most people have no idea what a ‘freeholder’ is or the important role they play in county government,” said Senator Pennacchio (R-Essex/Morris/Passaic). “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.”

The bill, S-855, will be considered by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee at its next meeting on July 16.

The legislation would require counties in New Jersey to change the title of “chosen freeholder” to “county commissioner” and “board of chosen freeholders” to “board of county commissioners.” It would also require counties to update their letterheads, stationery, websites and other writings within one year, but it would not have them replace signs or other writings if it would require the expenditure of county funds.