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Pennacchio Bill to Abolish ‘Freeholder’ Title Clears Senate

Almost 10 years ago, Senator Joe Pennacchio first introduced legislation that would eliminate the “Freeholder” title in New Jersey county governments. Today the bill was passed by the Senate.

Senator Pennacchio’s bill that would eliminate the ‘freeholder’ title in New Jersey county governments was approved by the Senate. (Wikimedia)

“As a former freeholder, I am well aware that most people don’t know what the title means or what a freeholder does, and I spent so much time explaining the definition of freeholder,” said Pennacchio (R-26). “People need to understand the responsibilities and importance of the boards that lead county government. It was obvious it was time for a change.”

The bill (S-855) retitles the elected positions as County Commissioners.

“The change is long overdue,” Pennacchio said. “Since 2011 when I first introduced the measure, the Legislature’s interest had been lukewarm. This bill is a change that will help residents better understand county leadership and recognize who they can turn to when they need help from local government. It’s not about rewriting history.”

Senator Pennacchio delivered the following statement on the floor prior to the vote:

I believe I initially proposed this legislation to change the freeholder’s title to commissioner more than nine years ago.  My impetus for the name change was clear lack of knowledge of what the term meant and what a freeholder does. As a former freeholder, I spent more time explaining the definition of a freeholder, rather than discussing our responsibilities and the work we did. Fast forward to present time and we see a more united push for the name change for different reasons. The impetus for this legislation before you has become part of a broad political and social evolution.  Times and norms have changed, and through the ballot box, via the people’s elected representatives, we are expressing those changes. We should however be very leery of over-reacting to political and social revolutions. We must beware of trying to redefine who we are by erasing who we were. History is taught so we can learn from the past, build on it, expand upon good things, and avoid and correct past mistakes, ensuring they are not repeated. Since 2011 when this bill was first introduced, this legislature at best was indifferent to a Freeholder name change. Our state has embraced the title since Colonial times, and we are the only remaining state calling county officials Freeholders. Does that make New Jersey bad? Does that make this legislative body duplicitous in ignoring racism, misogyny, and codifying that our citizens are not all equal? Of course not. In time, we have evolved and changed. The same case can be made for many of the historical figures whose monuments are being torn down. If we are to judge, we must first judge ourselves. If we are to judge, we must judge those who came before us in the totality of their lives’ work, in the times they lived. If we are to point to the speck in their eyes, we must acknowledge the boulder in ours. Or we can work together to build a better tomorrow and write our own history. To deny the existence of history by destroying statues, revising school curriculums and challenging the very men and women who gave us our past is metaphorically throwing the baby out with the bath water. I would also admonish those elected officials who feed into this revisionist frenzy for their own political advantage.  I challenge them, I challenge us, to look forward and write a better future instead of trying to re-invent the past and trying to erase something that just cannot and should not be erased.
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