What is a Freeholder?
Elected county officials in New Jersey are called “freeholders.” The term is rooted in the colonial period when only men with land, then called a freehold, were permitted to vote or serve in elected office. Colonists would elect two “freeholders” from each municipality to serve on the county governing body. The number of chosen freeholders in each county was eventually reduced and is now determined by countywide referendum. By statute the number of freeholders in any county cannot exceed nine. New Jersey remains the only state to call its elected county officials freeholders. In most other states they are known as county commissioners or county council members.
The scope of responsibilities for freeholders varies depending on the county. In every county, however, the Board of Chosen Freeholders acts as the legislative branch of county government. It is charged with approving the county government budget and overseeing the county bureaucracy.
In some counties, freeholders perform both legislative and executive functions on a commission basis, with each member having responsibility for a department or agency of county government. Six of New Jersey’s counties are charter counties – counties that have chosen to adopt a charter that establishes either a directly-elected County Executive or an appointed County Manager to run the day-to-day operations of government. Counties with directly elected executives are: Atlantic County; Bergen County; Essex County; Hudson County; and Mercer County. In Union County, a manager is appointed by the Freeholder Board to serve as the chief executive. In all of these counties power is more clearly separated between the legislative and executive branches of government.
Finally, in most counties freeholders are elected at-large, or countywide. In several counties, however, some or all freeholders are elected by district. In Atlantic County and Essex Counties, the some freeholders are elected at-large and others are elected by district. In Hudson County, all freeholders are elected by district. Whether to elect freeholders by district or at large is determined by county referenda.
For more information about county government in New Jersey, please call the New Jersey Association of Counties at 609-394-3467, or log onto the NJAC website at www.njac.org.