It took a coalition from a vocal group of county officials, the New Jersey Governor’s Office and several state senators to end a stubborn remnant of a bygone era, “freeholder” two years ago.
The freeholder title dates to before the American Revolution, and loosely translates to mean the only people eligible to hold public office at the time — white male owners of debt-free land.
In modern-day New Jersey, the term freeholder referred to a position akin to a county commissioner. Attempts to remove the term in the state had failed until a national shift occurred after the murder of George Floyd spurred the nation to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
A longtime politician, community leader and county freeholder from Union County N.J. decided to take action two years ago. Commissioner Angela Garretson has been an elected official since 2004, first running for a position on the school board, then to mayor of Hillside, N.J. and then county freeholder. After the death of Floyd, Garretson formed a coalition of black county officials called the NJNineteen with the goal of replacing the term with a far more common and less offensive “county commissioner.” Garretson said the group was able to mobilize their allies in the Governor’s Office, in the state Senate and in the community. Through hard work and raising awareness, the group was able to flip the script on more traditional attempts to remove the term to a strategy “embracing the tenets and the values of DEI.” Garretson said the year they succeeded she was running again for office. “I ran as a freeholder, but I became one of the first commissioners in the state of New Jersey.”
Another member of NJNineteen, Burlington County Commissioner Felicia Hopson, said the response from her community has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“I found it was easier to connect with residents and constituents, explaining what I did with having the term commissioner as opposed to freeholder,” she said. “There are still a lot more difficult conversations that need to be had, but this step from freeholder to commissioner is definitely a step in the right direction.”
N.J. State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio sponsored a bill to end the term in 2018 which was unsuccessful and cosponsored the bill in 2020 that succeeded. Pennacchio was once a county freeholder and pushed to have the term changed to county commissioner in the name of clarity and transparency.
“I was a freeholder and I knew I spent more time telling people what a freeholder was than what I did,” he noted. “If you want people to be engaged with their government, they have to know who they’re talking to in the first place.”Hero 1