With the start of 2021, the Boards of Chosen Freeholders around the state will be re-titled and officially called the County Board of Commissioners, including the one in Cape May County.
The title “freeholder” was considered offensive by many and had been a topic of discussion for the past decade. In 2018, the first bill was introduced in the state Assembly to make the name change but didn’t pass then. However, the change was approved by the state last August.
The Cape May County 2021 Reorganization Meeting and swearing in of Will Morey and Jeffrey Pierson on Jan. 6 will be the first time they are officially called Cape May County Commissioners, according to a county press release. Morey and Pierson won re-election in November and will begin new terms.
Dating back to the 1700s, the term “freeholder” originally was defined as a person who owned land free of debts or legal claims. In the Colonies, only freeholders could hold office.
The position was held by white, male landowners. The term dates back to New Jersey’s original constitution in 1776. In pre-Revolutionary New Jersey, appointed or elected freeholders, along with justices of the peace, appointed tax collectors and oversaw county business that included maintaining the poor, and building and repairing the ponds and bridges.
While the services they provide have changed and expanded over the years, the freeholder name remained. The consensus was to change the name to better represent the people of New Jersey, be more inclusive in county government, and invoke political correctness.
After passing in the Assembly and the Senate in July 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill in August that changed the name effective Jan. 1, 2021. The law eliminated the freeholder designation.
Now, the formal name is the Board of County Commissioners and each elected member will be called County Commissioner. New Jersey was the last state in the nation to use the term freeholder.
“We have started the transition to change the name ‘freeholder’ on our official documents, letterhead, and signage. The public will start to see the name change beginning January 1, with larger signage and references on public facilities changed within the next few months,” said Gerald M. Thornton, the Cape May County freeholder director who will be among those becoming commissioners.
“After 40 years in government, it will be tough getting used to the new title,” Thornton added in the county press release. “We recognize the need, and will work together to make the change a smooth transition. Be assured that the work of the Board of County Commissioners will continue to provide the residents of Cape May County outstanding services and protection for all.”