The Governor and the Legislature should change the title “Freeholder” to “County Commissioner.” Most New Jersey citizens are unaware of the nature and functions of county government, not realizing that they are constituents of their county’s “Boards of Chosen Freeholders.” The term “Freeholder” is a feudal anachronism, having originated in Medieval England to designate a white male who owned an estate or land free and clear. In Colonial times, only Freeholders were eligible to be chosen for membership on New Jersey county governing bodies. Slaves, tenants, and women were ineligible.
The term “Freeholder” is incompatible with a democratic form of government that welcomes the participation of all citizens, including those who do not own real property, are women, or are persons of diverse racial and ancestral origin. New Jersey is the only state that retains the title, the term “County Commissioner” being commonly used in other states. Like other states, county government in New Jersey operates under the commission form of government, with each Freeholder being assigned responsibility for specific departments and functions.
Monmouth County residents are disadvantaged in two ways by use of the phrase “Board of Chosen Freeholders” to describe the county governing body. Many believe that they cannot vote for a candidate for “Freeholder” because they do not live in Freehold Township, Freehold Borough or Upper Freehold Township. In addition, most county residents are unaware of the services and programs provided by the members of the Freeholder Board.
Over the past two centuries, county government in New Jersey has grown exponentially in importance and scope. Boards of Freeholders now handle regional needs and problems in the areas of health, human services, and law enforcement. Freeholders fund, operate or support court and jail facilities, emergency management, vocational and post-secondary education, solid waste disposal, recycling, water supply, storm water and wastewater management, environmental protection, libraries, parks, planning, consumer affairs, economic development, community development, fair housing, employment, agriculture, tourism, transportation, roads, bridges, public works, and many other agencies and programs.
County government is no longer an 18th Century relic but rather a vital and vibrant part of New Jersey’s 21st Century governance. Changing the name of its elected representatives from “Freeholder” to “County Commissioner” is an important step toward making county government more transparent, understood, and appreciated.
John D’Amico is a retired Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey and a former Monmouth County Freeholder and State Senator.