Monmouth officials oppose bill that would change ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner’

The Monmouth County Board of Freeholders is pushing back against two bills that have been introduced in the state Legislature.

The bills would, if passed in the Senate and Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, require any county that designates its governing body as a board of freeholders to rename that governing body as a board of county commissioners.

In a resolution the Monmouth freeholders passed on May 24, the board said it “strongly opposes the proposed legislation (A-2157 and S-402) as it would cause confusion and an unnecessary financial burden on each of the counties to change all county letterheads, stationary, all other writings including signs on buildings, parks and vehicles, and any county websites.”

The freeholders said they believe “that identifying the freeholders as ‘county commissioners’ would cause confusion to members of the public as other entities throughout the county and state identify their members as commissioners, including but not limited to the tax board, library commission, board of recreation and the Shade Tree Commission.”

From a historical perspective, the freeholders said “the historical significance of the term ‘freeholder’ is unique to New Jersey and allows this level of government to be clearly identified as no other level of our government uses this term, which cannot be said for the term of ‘commissioner.'”

The expenditure of time and any funds “to initiate an unnecessary name change is not responsible during these difficult financial times,” according to the freeholders, who are strongly urging the Legislature to reconsider its position on this issue.

Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas Arnone said, “It is my understanding the Legislature is considering a bill that would change the name of the county government title of ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner.’ As the Monmouth County freeholder director, I can tell you that no matter what our title is, my colleagues and I will continue to focus our efforts on cutting costs and maintaining a high quality of life for our residents.

“However, if this legislation is signed into law, it would only amount to one more unfunded mandate out of Trenton that would place undue financial burden on counties. The sole reason I am not in favor of this legislation is the fact that counties would be forced to incur the costs of changing the official name on literature and signs.

“It is my hope our state representatives refocus their efforts and energy on finding ways to reduce the cost of living in one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation,” Arnone said.

According to the Monmouth County website, in New Jersey’s early history, any person who owned land free from debts, mortgages, other legal claims or liens was a “freeholder.” Those individuals who were elected to serve were the “chosen freeholders.”

In 1798 the state Legislature established the board of chosen freeholders as the legislative and administrative head of county government in New Jersey.

One of the bill’s sponsors in the Senate is Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), who said, “The term ‘freeholder’ has its roots in pre-Colonial England and was used to describe free, white land owning men. This archaic phrase, blemished with negative connotations, has no place in a modern, diverse society.

“We have a responsibility to recognize outdated components of our government and take steps to modernize where appropriate. I believe in this instance, it is more than appropriate. By transitioning from the phrase ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner’ we are bringing our county government, with a budget of nearly $450 million and over 600,000 constituents, into the 21st century.

“Here in Monmouth County, the term ‘freeholder’ often causes confusion, leading some to believe the title is associated with Freehold Borough or Freehold Township. The title, which is only used in our state, also tends to confuse public officials outside of New Jersey who use the term ‘commissioner.’ This long overdue change will provide some much needed clarity to both the residents of New Jersey and the out-of-state public officials we work with on a regular basis,” Gopal said.

On April 12, the Senate bill was passed 27-4 with nine senators not voting. There are four senators who represent Monmouth County in the state Legislature. Gopal, who is a sponsor of the bill, voted “yes,” Republican Sam Thompson voted “yes,” Republican Robert Singer voted “yes” and Republican Declan O’Scanlon voted “no.”

The Assembly bill was introduced on Jan. 29 and referred to the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.