It’s not easy running for freeholder in New Jersey, which, of course, is the only place where you can run for freeholder.
Most people have no idea what a freeholder does.
We have a lot of government in New Jersey. It’s so easy for the county level of government to get lost among town government beneath it and the state and federal levels above it.
For the record, freeholders oversee county projects, facilities and services, which usually mean such things as roads, a park system, a community college, a vocational school, a jail, and an array of social services.
Still, it’s a tough thing for people to focus on.
This was clear Monday night in Morris Plains, Morris County, where five Republicans are seeking three party nominations in the June primary.
There are two teams.
A three-person team of incumbent Deborah Smith, former freeholder John Krickus and Stephen Shaw.
And a two-person team of incumbent John Cesaro and Aura Dunn, an aide to Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen.
The five candidates gave prepared remarks and were then asked two questions.
One was what the county freeholders could do to stimulate economic activity in Morris County.
A blunt answer to that query would be, “not much.”
The freeholders long have put money into activities designed to attract business to the county, but that only goes so far.
Krickus, as any good Republican is wont to do, cracked that overall business climate in New Jersey is not helped by Gov. Phil Murphy’s tax increases. It’s fact check time. No taxes have been raised by the Democratic governor. His proposals to increase the sales tax back to 7 percent and to raise the income tax on millionaires are not winning support from fellow Democrats.
Krickus did make a point about taxes mattering, but that also exemplifies the problem for the freeholders.
The state can give businesses an assortment of tax breaks and grants to convince them to relocate in New Jersey; municipalities can come up with Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes plans or Pilots. Those are not viable options for freeholders.
But the candidates had to say something; so they hemmed and hawed.
The next question was about opioid and what the freeholders could do to stop the epidemic.
Again, an honest answer probably would have been, “nothing.”
The freeholders have direct oversight over no police force.
And the county agencies charged with law enforcement – the sheriff and the prosecutor – are independent of the freeholders. The sheriff is elected and the prosecutor is appointed by the governor.
Just about all the freeholder candidates praised the work being done to combat opioids by Sheriff James Gannon. The office of Prosecutor Fredric Knapp is also heavily involved in fighting opioid abuse, but was not mentioned by the candidates.
So, if county freeholder duties are so obscure, why do we have them?
Some observers long have wondered about that, noting that there often is an overlap between many county and municipal services. Let’s eliminate that level of government, they say, and save some money.
Ah, but advocates of that view are forgetting about simple politics, where freeholders are absolutely necessary.
Being a freeholder, you see, is very much a political steppingstone.
Just look at Morris County itself over the last generation or so.
Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen started as a freeholder. As did a number of former and now deceased state lawmakers like Leanna Brown, Carol Murphy and Alex DeCroce.
Two of those now representing the county in Trenton, state Sens. Joseph Pennacchio and Anthony R. Bucco, were once freeholders.
Morris freeholders also have used the obvious political contacts they made to get nice state jobs. Former Morris freeholders in recent years have found jobs with the Turnpike Authority, the Port Authority, and the Victims of Crime Compensation Board. Still, other county freeholders like the aforementioned Cesaro, Doug Cabana, who is still on the board, and former freeholder Hank Lyon, have tried to move up to the Legislature, only to lose primary battles. John Murphy, also at one-time a Morris freeholder, ran for governor in the 2005 Republican primary.
I am excluding Chris Christie here, because while he is a former freeholder, his ascension to governor must be attributed to his work as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, not as a county officer.
This pattern doubtless is seen in other counties as well.
Sure, freeholder boards at times have hard-to-define duties, but they offer those elected a great chance to network on a wider level. And that can be invaluable for those who want to take advantage of the opportunity. All those who are freeholders, or who are running for freeholder, are not interested in securing other jobs, but many are.
Which is why county freeholders are probably going to be around in New Jersey indefinitely – even if running and explaining the job may be the hardest part of it.