New Jersey has the distinction of being the only state that still uses an odd, centuries-old title — chosen freeholder — for its elected county government officials. But some lawmakers want to replace that term, saying it may be offensive to minorities and women.

When the term was first used in the 1500s, it described who was eligible to hold public office — white males who owned land and were free from debt. A bill that would change the name to commissioner would "bring county government into the 21st century," the primary sponsor, State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, a Morris County Republican, said in a statement.

The bill has bipartisan support with two Democratic co-sponsors — State Sen. Jeff Van Drew of Cape May County and State Sen. Vin Gopal of Monmouth.

New Jersey State Museum. Some say the title Chosen Freeholder belongs here.
Jan Hefler / Staff
New Jersey State Museum. Some say the title Chosen Freeholder belongs here.

But many freeholders are outraged. Among them is John Bartlett Jr., deputy director of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the longest sitting freeholder in the state, who called the bill "the dumbest idea in the world." Bartlett, a Republican, has been a freeholder for 39 years and plans to run for another term in November.

"They're just pandering to political correctness. … This idea of trashing history has gone very far in this country," he said. "The word senator comes from the Roman Senate, and they threw Christians to the lions.  Should we get rid of that title too?"

Last week, the Southern New Jersey Freeholders' Association passed a resolution opposing the bill, following the lead of the New Jersey Association of Counties. The associations say such a change would cost thousands of dollars because new signs, ballots, and stationery would have to be made.

Bartlett also said that the word commissioner is too common, since it is used for cabinet members in New Jersey, Port Authority members, and some municipal government agencies.

Jeff Nash, a Camden County freeholder for 27 years, also opposes a change. "I think there are more important things the legislature should be working on," he said. "I haven't given it much thought, nor do I want to.

Nash, a Democrat, said a real problem is that not many people know who their elected representatives are and what they do. What they are called, he said, is not an issue.

Democrat Balvir Singh won a seat on the Burlington County Freeholder Board in November.
Burlington County Democratic Committee
Democrat Balvir Singh won a seat on the Burlington County Freeholder Board in November.

But Balvir Singh, who was elected to the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders in November, supports discarding a name that he says is confusing and has a negative connotation. "When my dentist heard I was now a freeholder, he Googled it right in front of me and then mentioned jokingly that that means I am a white man who owns a lot of land free and clear. Not only am I not white, but I have a mortgage," Singh said, laughing.

Singh, a Democrat, said the word is odd and the definition gives the impression it's not acceptable for minorities to run for this particular elected position.  "It's outdated," he said.

The state Senate voted by 27-4 last month in favor of the bill, but proposed changing it to make it mandatory for all counties.  Previously, the counties had the option of changing the title of freeholder to commissioner. A new vote on the change has not yet been scheduled.

An identical bill is being considered in an Assembly committee.