New Jersey is the last state to use the title ‘freeholder’ for its county legislators, but after 300 years it’s nearly on the way out.

A bill, A3594/S855, changing the term to ‘county commissioner’ has been endorsed by two legislative committees in recent days and is fast-tracked for final approval next week, fueled by a sudden interest in changing an anachronistic title that dates to when only debt-free landowners – who were white and male – could hold office.

“This change itself symbolizes who we are and what we believe in as a people,” said Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson, who said the term freeholder is offensive.

“We do not want to be tied to the old misogynistic and racist title,” Robinson said. “It does not fit or work in this day and age.”

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Somerset, said the change isn’t just a bill but an opportunity to confront larger societal issues.

“Words matter and titles matter,” Zwicker said. “It’s well past time that we shed the title of freeholder, not just because it is antiquated and confusing but because this title is by its very nature exclusionary.”

“While there’s still much work to do, and some might even say this is inconsequential, I argue the opposite,” he said. “Because in the fight for equality and justice, even the smallest battles are worth winning.”

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin recently endorsed the bill, in the context of the broader public debate about structural inequality.

Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, proposed the change nine years ago because most people don’t know what a freeholder is.

“As a former freeholder, I spent more time explaining the definition of a freeholder rather than discussing the responsibilities and the work that we did,” Pennacchio said.

It’s finally progressing, though for different reasons than Pennacchio envisioned. He said the change should be part of a broad political and social evolution – but doesn’t want it caught up in erasing history and tearing down monuments.

“We should, however, be very leery of overreacting to political and social revolutions. We must beware of trying to redefine who we are by erasing who we were,” Pennacchio said.

Some county officials have suggested that the change should be optional. Robinson said the freeholder title is confusing enough already without it still being used in some counties but not others.

The bill is now awaiting votes in the full Senate and Assembly. Their next voting sessions are July 30.

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