Board of County Commissioners (New Jersey)
In New Jersey, a Board of County Commissioners (until 2020 named the Board of Chosen Freeholders) 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 county commissioners serves as the county legislature. In the remaining counties, the board of county commissioners exercises both executive and legislative functions, often with an appointed county administrator or manager overseeing the day-to-day operations of county government.
New Jersey's former system of naming its county legislative bodies "boards of chosen freeholders" was 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 county commissioners 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].
The term "freeholder" as originally 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.
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.
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. 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.
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Current state law specifies that the boards may contain from three to 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 county commissioner 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. In some counties, members of the board of county commissioner perform both legislative and executive functions on a commission basis, with each county commissioner 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 county commissioner 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
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.
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 called for "eliminating an antiquated title from an era when slavery and racism was tolerated" and announced plans for Burlington County to stop using the "freeholder" title on official communications and materials. The board planned to replace the title with "county commissioner" by passing a resolution at its August 20 meeting.
On August 21, 2020, "amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges of structural racism," Governor Murphy signed Senate Bill 855, which changed the name of county governing bodies and mandates updates to website, letterhead, stationary, and other writings. 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."
Structure by county
All county commissioners are elected to three-year terms.
|County||No. of members||Election frequency||Representation||Notes||References|
|Atlantic||9||Staggered elections||Five county commissioners represent equally populated districts, four are elected at-large||Popularly elected Atlantic County Executive|||
|Bergen||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||Popularly elected Bergen County Executive|||
|Burlington||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director is elected annually by the board from among its members|||
|Camden||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large|||
|Cape May||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January|||
|Cumberland||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January; appointed county administrator|||
|Essex||9||Concurrent elections||Five county commissioners represent equally populated districts, four are elected at-large||County commissioner president and vice president serve one-year terms; popularly elected Essex County Executive|||
|Gloucester||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director|
|Hudson||9||Concurrent elections||Nine County Commissioners represent equally populated districts||Popularly elected Hudson County Executive|
|Hunterdon||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January|||
|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|||
|Middlesex||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||In January of each year, the board reorganizes, selecting one county commissioner to be commissioner director and another to be county commissioner deputy director; county commissioner director appoints county commissioner to serve as chairpersons and members on the various committees which oversee county departments|
|Monmouth||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January|
|Morris||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large|
|Ocean||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||Appointed county administrator|
|Passaic||7||Staggered elections||Elected at-large|
|Salem||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||In January of each year, the board reorganizes, selecting one county commissioner to be county commissioner director and another to be county commissioner deputy director; eliminated county administrator position at its 2014 reorganization meeting|
|Somerset||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||Appointed county administrator|
|Sussex||5||Staggered elections||Elected at-large|||
|Union||9||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||Appointed county manager|
|Warren||3||Staggered elections||Elected at-large||County commissioner director and county commissioner deputy director elected from board at annual reorganization meeting in January; appointed county administrator|||
- Board of selectmen, New England town government
- Board of supervisors
- Police Jury (Louisiana)
- County council
- County commission
- Sole commissioner
- County government
- Fiscal Court (Kentucky)
- Commissioners' court (Texas and Missouri; known in Arkansas as "Quorum Court")
- Acts of the General Assembly of the Province of New-Jersey, ed. by Samuel Allison, (Burlington, N.J. 1776), pp. 14–16.
- "What does a freeholder do? 9 things you might not know about N.J. county officials". NJ.com. November 2014. Retrieved October 16, 2017.
- s:New Jersey Constitution of 1776
- Acts of the Tenth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, p. 246 (Isaac Collins, Trenton, NJ, 1785).
- Laws of the State of New Jersey, ed. William Paterson, (Newark, NJ 1800) pp. 265–271.
- Rinde, Meir (October 27, 2015). "Explainer: What's a Freeholder? NJ's Unusual County Government System". NJ Spotlight. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
- 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."
- "Burlington County to end ‘freeholder’ title", Burlington County Times, July 14, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2022. "Burlington County Freeholder Director Felicia Hopson announced the change Tuesday afternoon and said the county would immediately begin phasing out the term “freeholder” from county materials and communications. 'Continuing our work to end systemic racism must be everyone’s objective and eliminating an antiquated title from an era when slavery and racism was tolerated is one step we can take right away,' Hopson said in a news release."
- "'Freeholder' Title Abolished In New Jersey". Long Valley, NJ Patch. August 21, 2020. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
- Brunetti Post, Michelle. "Murphy signs bill into law to change "freeholder" title to "commissioner"". Press of Atlantic City. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
- Board of Chosen Freeholders, Atlantic County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
- Board of Chosen Freeholders Archived October 4, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Bergen County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- Board of Chosen Freeholders, Burlington County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- GovernmentAbout the Freeholder Board, Camden County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- Freeholders Home Page Archived June 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, Cape May County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
- What is a County Freeholder? Archived December 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Cumberland County, New Jersey. Accessed February 3, 2008.
- Definition of a Freeholder Archived August 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Essex County, New Jersey. Accessed January 30, 2008.
- About the Hunterdon County Freeholders, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- Elected Officials Archived November 14, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Mercer County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- 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.
- Board of Chosen Freeholders, Sussex County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.
- About Warren County...Governmental Structure, Warren County, New Jersey. Accessed November 5, 2016.