Board of chosen freeholders

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In New Jersey, a board of chosen freeholders (to be renamed Board of County Commissioners starting January 1, 2021) is the elected county-wide government board in each of the state's 21 counties. In the five counties that have an elected County Executive, the board of freeholders serves as the county legislature. In the remaining counties, the board of freeholders exercises both executive and legislative functions, often with an appointed county administrator or manager overseeing the day-to-day operations of county government.

Origin[edit]

New Jersey's system of naming its county legislative bodies "Boards of Chosen Freeholders" is unique in the United States. The origin of the name can be traced back to a law passed by the General Assembly of the Province of New Jersey on February 28, 1713/14 which stated:

That the Inhabitants of each Town and Precinct, within each County, shall assemble and meet together on the second Tuesday in March yearly and every Year, at the most publick Place of each respective Town and Precinct, and, by the Majority of Voices, choose two Freeholders for every such Town and Precinct for the ensuing Year ; which Freeholders so chosen, or the major Part of them, together with all the Justices of Peace of each respective County, or any three of them (one whereof being of the Quorum) shall meet together… [for the purpose of taking actions related to the construction and maintenance of county courthouses and jails].[1]

The term "freeholder" as used in "Board of Chosen Freeholders" originally referred to individuals who owned land (as opposed to leasing it) in an amount set by law, and was derived from the term freehold. "Chosen" means elected.[2]


The New Jersey State Constitution of 1776, contained the following voter qualification provisions applicable to those voting in New Jersey elections, including county freeholder elections:[3]

That all inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.

On March 3, 1786 a law was passed that incorporated the Justices and Chosen Freeholders of each county as a body politic for the purpose of owning the county courthouse, jail and other public buildings. These bodies were styled as the "Board of Justices and chosen Freeholders" of each respective county.[4]

A law that was passed on February 13, 1798 reincorporated the chosen freeholders into bodies that were named "The Board of Chosen Freeholders" of their respective counties.[5] Under the new law, the functions previously performed by the Justices and the Chosen Freeholders together were now performed by the Freeholders alone. These included the authority to build and maintain jails, court houses and bridges. The Chosen Freeholders were also now given the authority to build and operate poor houses.

Current use[edit]

Current state law specifies that the boards may contain between three and nine seats. Due to the small sizes of the boards and the possibility of electing an exactly split legislature with the inevitably resulting deadlock, an odd-numbered board is required. The means of election of the freeholders varies from all elected in districts to all elected at large to various systems in between. Elections are first past the post for single-member districts, and for at-large elections when only one seat is at stake. For at-large elections with more than one seat, plurality-at-large voting is used.

Depending on the county, the executive and legislative functions may be performed by the board or split.[6] In some counties, members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders perform both legislative and executive functions on a commission basis, with each freeholder assigned responsibility for a department or group of departments. In other counties (Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Mercer), there is a directly elected county executive who performs the executive functions while the Board of Chosen Freeholders retains a legislative and oversight role. In counties without an executive, a county administrator (or county manager) may be hired to perform day-to-day administration of county functions. All of the above attributes may be changed by act of the board and a referendum, or by explicit change of the relevant laws by the New Jersey Legislature.

Controversy and name change[edit]

The term "freeholder," which is used in no other state, has been criticized as a vestige of a time when only property owners could be elected, which led to white men controlling political power at a time when women and black people were unable to own property on their own.[7]

In early July 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy reached an agreement with the Democratic leaders in both houses of the legislature under which the term "Freeholder" would be eliminated and replaced with "county commissioner".

On July 14, 2020, Burlington County Freeholder Director Felicia Hopson announced plans for Burlington County to stop using the "freeholders" title on official communications and materials. The board planned to replace the title with "county commissioner" by passing a resolution at its Aug. 20 meeting. [8]

On August 21, 2020, "amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges of structural racism," Governor Murphy signed a bill to change the name of county governing bodies. Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, an African-American woman who was once a Freeholder herself, said that the term "refers to a time when only white male landowners could hold public office."

The law will become effective on January 1, 2021.[9][10]

Structure by county[edit]

All freeholders are elected to three-year terms.

County No. of
members
Election frequency Representation Notes References
Atlantic 9 Staggered elections Five freeholders represent equally populated districts, four are elected at-large Popularly elected Atlantic County Executive [11]
Bergen 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Popularly elected Bergen County Executive [12]
Burlington 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director is elected annually by the board from among its members [13]
Camden 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large [14]
Cape May 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January [15]
Cumberland 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January; appointed county administrator [16]
Essex 9 Concurrent elections Five freeholders represent equally populated districts, four are elected at-large Freeholder president and vice president serve one-year terms; popularly elected Essex County Executive [17]
Gloucester 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director
Hudson 9 Concurrent elections Nine freeholders represent equally populated districts Popularly elected Hudson County Executive
Hunterdon 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January [18]
Mercer 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Board has a chair and vice-chair, these positions are rotated among board members each year; popularly elected Mercer County Executive [19]
Middlesex 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large In January of each year, the board reorganizes, selecting one freeholder to be freeholder director and another to be freeholder deputy director; freeholder director appoints freeholders to serve as chairpersons and members on the various committees which oversee county departments
Monmouth 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January
Morris 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January
Ocean 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Appointed county administrator
Passaic 7 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January
Salem 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large In January of each year, the board reorganizes, selecting one freeholder to be freeholder director and another to be freeholder deputy director; eliminated county administrator position at its 2014 reorganization meeting[20]
Somerset 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large Appointed county administrator
Sussex 5 Staggered elections Elected at-large [21]
Union 9 Staggered elections Elected at-large Appointed county manager
Warren 3 Staggered elections Elected at-large Freeholder director and freeholder deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January; appointed county administrator [22]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Acts of the General Assembly of the Province of New-Jersey, ed. by Samuel Allison, (Burlington, N.J. 1776)p. 14-16
  2. ^ "What does a freeholder do? 9 things you might not know about N.J. county officials". NJ.com. November 2014. Retrieved October 16, 2017.
  3. ^ s:New Jersey Constitution of 1776
  4. ^ Acts of the Tenth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, p. 246 (Isaac Collins, Trenton, NJ, 1785)
  5. ^ Laws of the State of New Jersey, ed. William Paterson, (Newark, NJ 1800) pp. 265-271
  6. ^ Rinde, Meir (October 27, 2015). "Explainer: What's a Freeholder? NJ's Unusual County Government System". NJ Spotlight. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  7. ^ Racioppi, Dustin. "NJ must replace 'freeholder' term rooted in structural racism, Murphy says", The Record, July 9, 2020. Accessed July 12, 2020. "Gov. Phil Murphy and the two Democratic leaders of the state Legislature announced Thursday that they support legislation to do away with the 'outdated' term in favor of county commissioner, which is more commonly used around the country."
  8. ^ https://www.co.burlington.nj.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1317
  9. ^ "'Freeholder' Title Abolished In New Jersey". Long Valley, NJ Patch. August 21, 2020. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  10. ^ Writer, MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST Staff. "Murphy signs bill into law to change "freeholder" title to "commissioner"". Press of Atlantic City. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  11. ^ Board of Chosen Freeholders, Atlantic County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
  12. ^ Board of Chosen Freeholders Archived October 4, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Bergen County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  13. ^ Board of Chosen Freeholders, Burlington County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  14. ^ GovernmentAbout the Freeholder Board, Camden County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  15. ^ Freeholders Home Page Archived 2006-06-07 at the Wayback Machine, Cape May County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
  16. ^ What is a County Freeholder? Archived 2007-12-23 at the Wayback Machine, Cumberland County, New Jersey. Accessed February 3, 2008.
  17. ^ Definition of a Freeholder Archived August 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Essex County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
  18. ^ About the Hunterdon County Freeholders, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  19. ^ Elected Officials Archived November 14, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Mercer County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  20. ^ Young, Alex (January 9, 2014). "Salem County freeholders look to 2014 at annual reorganization meeting". South Jersey Times. Retrieved November 24, 2014. He replaces Evern Ford, who will leave county government after the board also voted to abolish his county administrator position with a unanimous vote.
  21. ^ Board of Chosen Freeholders, Sussex County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
  22. ^ About Warren County...Governmental Structure, Warren County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.