Freeholders or Commissioners. What’s in a name?

Recently District 26 Senator Joe Pennaccio introduced a bill that would change the title of the County Board of\ Chosen Freeholders. You may say, “Maybe he had nothing better to do?” I would say, “Who among us has not awoken in the middle of the night with some grand scheme that seemed silly in the morning?” As a rule, they never make it to the Senate floor.

Change, never very comfortable, is not necessarily bad. It has its place. Yet I can’t help but question Pennacchio’s choice of terminology. In an excess of boring blandness, he wants to replace “freeholder” with “commissioner”. I’m already asleep. These people should not be demoted to the status of the folks on the flag pole or sand dune commission. The only commissioner to ever achieve any degree of notoriety was a minor character on Batman.

Freeholders are possibly the most unheralded and underappreciated of all public servants. They work  full time at a part-time job; rarely engage in self-promotion; and, to my knowledge, have never had an affair with a former porn star. We don’t know what they do, but we’d know pretty quick if they didn’t do it. If Middletown’s Gerry Scharfenberger, in charge of Weights and Measures, wasn’t up to the task, you’d know if your fifteen-gallon tank took sixteen gallons of gas. You’d know if your pound of baloney weighed twelve ounces. You’d know if that advertised foot-long hot dog was two inches short. And that’s just one of his twenty jobs.

Firefighters and EMTs learn everything from resuscitation to handling burn victims. In Ocean County they go through extensive training at the Fire and First Aid Academy. Jack Kelly started that. Freeholder Jack Kelly, not Commissioner Jack Kelly. It’s not what commissioners do. Self-serving big-wigs like Chris Christie stocked his pond with commissioners. Every lackluster second cousin and friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend was appointed to a commission to study an unsolvable problem or a problem that was never a problem to begin with (like the traffic flow at Fort Lee. And we saw how well that worked out).

If 320 years of NJ history are to be discarded for no substantive reason at all, then at least the new title should have some substance. “Count” would be the obvious choice since that was what county originally meant – an area ruled by a count. If I read that Count Bartlett in the County of Ocean was instrumental in opening public parks to preserve what precious nature is left for us, that would stick with me. FYI, John Bartlett is the longest serving freeholder in New Jersey and New Jersey is the only state that has freeholders. That makes him the longest serving freeholder in America. I would then submit Freeholder Bartlett as a national treasure and so, by federal law, cannot be dismantled.

Red Bank already has the Count Basie Theater and see how easily that rolls off the tongue. Name recognition is important. “Count Arnone” has that ring to it. His “Made in Monmouth” program is a much-needed boost to struggling Mom-and-Pop businesses. Another of his gems, “Grown in Monmouth”, brings county farm products to small local markets. Who’s responsible for helping these “little guys”? Count Arnone. I can remember that.

These kinds of exalted titles, of course, demand some pageantry. The monthly meetings should begin with a processional that would become a tourist attraction. A band would be necessary; replete with coronets, trumpets, and French horns. In default of horse-and-carriage, at least a late model pimped-out Uber limo always at the ready. It goes without saying that, with titles like this, they can’t be expected to hold meetings in some dreary room with fake wood paneling and plastic chairs. There would have to be high ceilings, velvet curtains, mahogany paneling, and large gilt-framed portraits of dead board members, preferably looking not dead.

Ocean County can even boast of a “Countess”. If we can lighten up on our American aversion to positions of nobility, Virginia Haines would be a natural fit for a title laden with eloquence and dignity. The “Contessa of Social Services”! Now that makes a lasting impression.

In a state noted for Snooki and her low-brow set, NJ could use a royal boost. How about “Prince” Pat Impreveduto in Monmouth. His alliance with Howell Township. In holding a county Health Fair more than qualifies him for that mantle. Complimentary screenings for psoriasis, bone density, and cholesterol. No charge for expert advice for veterans and Medicaid. Free flu vaccinations for children. Hey! If it’s free, I’ll take two. And thank you Prince Pat for the service.

It seems criminal to suggest Freeholder John Curley be demoted to commissioner. Legendary for his relentless fight against corruption wherever he sees it; whether it’s the abuse of farmland assessments by a political hack or the misappropriations of a college president, John’s in there with guns blazing. Like General Patton, he’ll take some punches but he just keeps coming. “General” Curley? Why not? He’s earned it.

If a commission of commissioners were assigned to study the significance of political names, the word “Senator” demands some discussion. Far older and archaic than Freeholder, in Rome senators were restricted to the wealthy class. Commoners held no such position. In colonial America, it was essentially hereditary, not attainable by the great unwashed. Accounting for contrived thin-skinned sensibilities, the term “senator” should also be abolished, leaving only a “Mister” Pennacchio to do whatever it is regular people do.

Maybe it’s my bad but I missed the whole uproar about the imposition of the word “freeholder”. Did I pass out at the bar when the protests began? Was I stuck in traffic during the riots? Somehow all those Facebook posts lamenting the effects of “freeholder” were not friend requests of mine. It gets worse. The eradication of history does not come without challenges. Most noticeably, we’ll have to also change the name “Freehold”. Already burdened with the task of changing business cards, nameplates, stationary, and road signs; reworking every related ordinance and legal instrument; and now tens of thousands of addresses. I guess it’s worth it. Until you wake up.

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