OCEAN COUNTY – While welcoming Ocean County Vocational Technical School dramatic art students to their new classrooms in Ocean County College, in January, Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari explained to them his role as a Freeholder: it’s like being mayor of the county.
Vicari, who is the longest serving Freeholder in the state, may soon have a different title as lawmakers move forward on legislation to eliminate the title of “freeholder.”
The bill to replace the title “freeholder” with “commissioner” was originally proposed by Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, a Morris County Republican, in 2018. It never wound up passing.
Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, said the proposal was revised.
A joint statement by the three Democrats called for the change saying “As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism. It’s past time for New Jersey to phase out the term ‘freeholder’ from our public discourse – a term coined when only white male landowners could hold public office.”
The Senate bill, S-855, passed in committee. The Assembly version, A-3594, has not yet been heard in committee. A bill has to pass through committee and then be brought up before the full body for a vote before the governor signs it into law.
Freeholder Director Vicari spoke with Micromedia Publications/JerseyShoreOnline.com and said that while he understands the emotion behind the idea, he wished the issue could wait until 2021 because there is also a cost factor associated with a name change. He also agreed that the term commissioner was not a good choice preferring County Supervisor.
Vicari pointed to the response that the late Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. had made in 2018 when the idea first came up.
During the Ocean County Freeholder Board’s April 18, 2018 meeting, Freeholder Bartlett, a retired history teacher, voiced strong opposition to the proposed legislation. At the time, he was the longest serving Freeholder, having served 39 consecutive years. He passed away later that year. “I find the proposed legislation disturbing.”
“We have been the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders since the county was founded in 1850. It pains me to think the State Senate has a bill before it – a bill that would change the name to a Board of Commissioners,” Bartlett said. There were an abundance of boards with the titles of commissioners throughout the state and in Ocean County alone there were 12 commissions with well over 100 non-elected commissioners. There are also numerous commissioners serving in the governor’s cabinet.
“Commissioners is an overused term. What is wrong with the term ‘freeholder?’” Bartlett asked stating that the term had been used since colonial times. He also noted at the time that while monuments and statutes were being removed and acknowledged some might be inappropriate that they, like the term of “freeholder” were still a part of history.
“To suggest the term ‘freeholder’ is in anyway sexist or racist is downright insulting. It makes no sense,” Bartlett said. The Freeholders passed a resolution opposing the move in May of 2018.
As Vicari would echo two years later, Bartlett pointed out that there would be a cost factor to changing signs on county buildings, parks, stationary, trucks and other areas.
“This is up to the State of New Jersey and it will happen. I’d prefer it happen after the COVID-19 crisis is over. It will be very expensive. Some counties (outside of New Jersey) have County Supervisors. We supervise county government we don’t commission it,” Vicari added.
Vicari said that the way it looks now the new terminology term would start to be used in all 21 counties after December but with no change of the functions of a freeholder.
“I would prefer they wait until later in 2021 so we can have a transition as we have so much printed paper. Let’s wear it out, the COVID-19 pandemic will be gone and then we can look at what we want to do and reeducate the people that we are no longer a freeholder but a commissioner,” Vicari said.
He added that a survey should have been taken “as a courtesy to each county what their preference was. I don’t think we should rush through it right now.”
“The diversity of freeholders has never been more to what it is now in 2020. Do we change the name of the sheriff or governor? If you are going to change the name of freeholder do you change the rest?” Vicari asked.
Vicari added, this is a very emotional time right now but let it wait one more year. “They never came to Ocean County or any county and asked us what our preference was. We picked up the paper one day and saw this is what the state wanted to do.”
“We have to be practical. I am not going to be emotional about this whole situation. The people of Ocean County know what a Freeholder does. It is publicized out there. Most people, I would say, know the function and job of a Freeholder,” Vicari said.
He noted that people just voted in the July 7 primary which had the term position of Freeholder on it. “We will accept whatever the state does. I think we should wait to 2021 and cut the expense as much as possible. These are difficult times. Let’s use the money for something else.”
Vicari was also a history teacher. He said “is it an English term? Yes, but we have an English background here. I cannot change history.”
He noted in the 1960s there were only three Freeholders on the board but it went to its current five later. The Freeholder Director also recalled a time when Tom Kean Jr. had proposed the idea of abolishing the state’s Freeholder boards and turning over the power of governing to the towns.
“We are middle government. We manage $450 million a year in our budget. We have 607,000 people and no one is complaining about our services. I think people should have something to say about this,” Vicari said referring to the name change decision.
“How can people vote for a Freeholder in one year and change it the next year without the input of the people?” Vicari asked. He said he’d have liked to have seen the matter put on as a state ballot question and to first have a feasibility study on the impact it would have on the state.
The “freeholder” name change is just one of the local changes being made or being proposed. Toms River school district officials are being asked to change the name of the Toms River High School South “Indians.” The mascot for Howell Township High School changed from Rebel Yell to H and his appearance shifted from a Confederate soldier caricature to a side profile of a Revolutionary War soldier.