Goodbye Freeholders, Hello County Commissioners

Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson said she welcomes the board’s name change to County Commissioners. (File photo.)

Somerset County’s top elected officials will get a name change come next year, a change that some say is a long time coming.

Gov. Phil Murphy on August 21 signed into law a bill officially changing the name of the state’s County Boards of Chosen Freeholders to County Commissioners.

Somerset County’s Board will officially change its name on January 1, 2021, said County spokeswoman Lisa Clark.

New Jersey was the last state in the Union to still refer to its top-tier county elected officials as Freeholders, a pre-Revolutionary term coined when only white male owners of debt-free land could hold elected office.

Various bills to change the name have floated around the state Legislature for at least a decade, but could not get traction.

A local primary sponsor on the bill was state Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16), while township resident and state Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17) was one of 15 co-sponsors.

“It is beyond time we change the title of ‘Freeholder’,” Zwicker said in a press release about the bill’s signing. “As a term dating back to before the Revolutionary War, whose meaning was historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners, it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women.”

“Our racist and sexist laws and conditions historically kept people from voting, owning land, and much more,” Zwicker said in the release. “Removing this exclusionary term from New Jersey’s political titles, while only a small and symbolic part of the work that lies ahead of us to break down the walls of systemic racism and sexism, is a step in the right direction.”

Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson, a township resident, has welcomed the name change.

“The name change comes at a crucial time in our state and in our country where we need to eliminate the use of terms, terminology, ideology, laws and practices that do not reflect who we are today,” Robinson, the County’s first African-American Freeholder Director, said in a release. “While the work must be done and is expected to be done, regardless of the title, Black elected officials are no longer asking for change but are demanding it.”

Danielsen said the name change “is one of many steps that our country and state need to make, to right the wrongs. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.”

“The name ‘County Commissioner’ is more descriptive of our tasks – to govern the county, so that is good for the electorate, Freeholder Brian Levine, also a township resident, wrote in an email.  “Most officeholders a few centuries ago, unfortunately, were white males, whether they were congressmen, senators, governors, freeholders, mayors, etc.  Today, of course, we are much more enlightened.” 

“The real issue, though, is what people do while in office, not the name,” Levine wrote.  “Too often, we see individuals who splinter the public trust by immoral and self-serving acts; so we must hold in high esteem those who take their position, no matter the name, seriously and ethically.”

Counties will also be required to update their websites to reflect the title change as well as retire letterheads, stationery, and other writings bearing ‘freeholder’ once their stock is exhausted. The update or replacement of signs or other writings will not be required within the law’s timeframe if doing so requires the use of county funds. These changes will, however, need to occur during the ordinary course of business.

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