New Jersey's county freeholders come and go. But the title of freeholder should stay | Kevin Riordan

The earnest cub reporter from Massachusetts had an urgent question for his New Jersey newspaper editor.

What’s a freeholder?

We were talking in a newsroom where typewriters ruled, during an era of journalism now so distant in the mist of time that I can’t remember my editor’s answer.

But I was reminded of the question when I read my colleague Jan Hefler’s story about the possibility the even more ancient “freeholder” title may be abolished and replaced by something more user-friendly and perhaps less … fraught.

A quaint, even charming colonial-era artifact to some, the word “freeholder” is sometimes interpreted as either a reference to slavery — or as a title designed to exclude those who were not free, or white, or male.

I know, because I used to think that’s what it meant, too.

“It wasn’t racial and it wasn’t gendered, but it was definitely class-based,” said William FitzGerald, an associate professor of English at Rutgers-Camden.

He oversees the first-year student writing program, describes himself as interested in rhetoric and is fascinated by “archaic terms of English law that have survived” in New Jersey.

The freeholder title reflects the “historical divide between rich (landed gentry) and poor (the landless leaseholders) in England” and later, the United States, he said.

“To be a freeholder you had to own your property free and clear, so there were no claims on you, and you were free of encumbrances and free to serve the public interest,” FitzGerald said, noting that the “average farmer or tradesman” would be unlikely to meet that standard.

Although he understands the enduring confusion about the meaning of the word, FitzGerald said he was “surprised” to hear Trenton might retire the title after 200-plus years.

Medford resident Bill Love said some legislators seem more interested in rewriting history, or righting historical wrongs — real or perceived — than, say, doing something about the Garden State’s actual problems.

“I couldn’t care less what you call the freeholders,” said the longtime citizen watchdog of local government. “It’s one more thing that doesn’t deserve our time or effort. Forget this nothing issue.

“New Jersey’s tax base is eroding. We’ve got a brain drain. We educate all these kids and they go out of state and never come back. And we’re thinking about a name?”

Observations like these often are heard “when you can’t add anything to the discourse,” state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, sponsor of a bill to swap out ‘freeholder’ for ‘commissioner,’ told me Monday.

The measure has not been well-received in some quarters; the Southern New Jersey Freeholders’ Association passed a resolution opposing the bill, citing costs such as new signs and stationery.

“I have friends who are not happy with this,” said Pennacchio, a former freeholder himself. “But I do feel the time has come.”

For the record, the Morris County Republican is concerned about education funding, property taxes and any number of issues other than the job titles of other elected officials. And he insists that getting rid of the ‘freeholder’ title “isn’t about race” or gender equality.

“It’s about people engaging with their government,” he said. “If people don’t know what a freeholder is or does, how can government transparency work?”

Freeholder is “an archaic term,” he said. “There’s a reason why we’re the only state that uses it.”

Maybe that’s a reason to keep the title. After all, ‘Board of Chosen Freeholders’ has a vintage dignity that the humdrum, if serviceable, ‘commissioner’ lacks.

Staying with ‘freeholders’ is like sticking with that other feature of Garden State life that makes us special, distinctive, and idiosyncratic: our ban on self-service gas.

Alas, our ‘dry’ town tradition seems to be fading faster and faster and seems unlikely to survive the craft microbrewery/artisanal winery craze, except perhaps in Ocean City.

We’ve lost many of our traffic circles as well, although it’s hard to muster up much nostalgia for such a diabolical thing.

So if we lose ‘freeholder,’ what’s next?

Will Freehold Township, Monmouth County have to rename itself?

Will someone introduce a bill to abolish the North-South Jersey regional distinctions of “pork roll” and “Taylor Ham?”

Between water ice and Italian ice?

Between QuikChek and Wawa?

Never.