Making County Government More Important and Visible


Whatever you call county officials, they’re still going to be obscure.

It’s not the name, ‘”freeholder.”  It’s the status  of county government in New Jersey, which is stuck between the more visible town government and the more influential state and federal governments.
For years, most everyone who cared about county government knew the name freeholder was archaic and a bit silly. I was one of those who cared, having spent more than a decade covering the Morris County freeholders for the Morristown Daily Record.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio of Morris, who like many state legislators is a former freeholder, suggested changing the name to “commissioner” years ago. Looks like his timing was off. Nothing happened.

But last week, Senate President Sweeney, also a one time freeholder, joined with Gov. Phil Murphy, who never was a freeholder, to say they’ve reached agreement to change the name, presumably to commissioner.

In most states, elected county office holders are commissioners or supervisors.

The governor deviated from his pandemic briefing on Friday to say it was time to consign the name freeholder to “the dustbin of history.” He said the name is not only a relic, but discriminatory.

Let’s pause for a moment.

The name freeholder has nothing to do with any ethnic or racial bias. It came about back when holding elected office required a candidate to own land “free and clear.” That excluded people who weren’t wealthy, but let’s be real, today’s political system certainly benefits the wealthy as well.

A companion reason for the proposed change is that a name like “commissioner” will resonate more with the public. It is true that when people run for county freeholder, they often have to explain to voters what a freeholder is.

But a name change is unlikely to change much of that. As we said, county government is the problem. It doesn’t do all that much.

It is local governments – town councils and school boards – that run the schools, oversee police, collect the trash, develop a master plan and pave many of the roads in town. Counties generally handle such vital things as overseeing the jail, a community college and a park system. but on the visibility scale, they fall below municipal officials. And also far below state and federal officials.

There is a way to change this dynamic and it could actually save some precious property tax dollars to boot.

How about we scale-back the powers of municipal governments and let counties handle such basic services as all road upkeep, policing and maybe even the local school system?  Many other states do it this way. This could save money and also make the office of freeholder, or commissioner, a more important and visible job.

But as we know, in a “home rule” state like New Jersey, that is very unlikely to happen.

So even with a name change, the elected officials who run the state’s 21 counties probably will remain in the background.

But let’s not overlook the salient fact that whether you call them freeholder, commissioner, or supervisor, the job is destined to remain a political steppingstone to higher office.

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