Explanation: What is a free owner? Unusual NJ County Government System

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What are they: New Jersey is geographically divided into 21 counties which serve as administrative and political units. Their population ranges from Bergen County, with 934,000, to Salem County with 66,000. Ocean County is the largest with 916 square miles while Hudson County, the smallest, is only 47. square miles.

Who is in charge: Each county has a legislative body called the Council of Chosen Free Owners. The “One Person, One Voice” decisions of federal and state courts in the mid-1960s led to the creation of a uniform system of three to nine landowners per county, depending on the population, according to the population. New Jersey Politics and Government: Suburbs Become Major, by Barbara Salmore. They are elected in general in some counties and in districts in others.

Steering options: Originally, landowners chose a director from among themselves to head the county government. Two exceptions were Hudson and Essex counties, where voters elected trustees for a period in the late 19th century and then county supervisors in the early 20th century, according to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey. The system was overhauled by the Optional Charter Act of 1972, which created four alternatives for county governance: a county executive elected by the people, an appointed county director, an appointed county supervisor, or a council chairman. .

Directors, administrators, executives: In most counties an appointed administrator is responsible for operations, although in a few the landowners themselves have executive responsibilities over county departments. Five counties – Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Mercer – have opted for popularly elected county leaders in addition to independent boards of directors. Union has a county manager.

Sheriffs and other elected officials: County voters have elected sheriffs since 1776. Their duties have gradually been divided among other agencies, leaving them to handle prisoner transfers, foreclosure sales and some law enforcement functions, though sheriffs still control county jails in 10 counties, according to the New Jersey Encyclopedia. Other elected officials in the county are the county clerk, who keeps the records and helps organize elections, and the surrogate, who oversees probate wills and orphan matters. County prosecutors are appointed by the governor and approved by the senate.

Role of counties in national elections: From 1776 to 1965, the State Legislative Council and its successor, the State Senate, consisted of one member from each county. Local bosses had considerable influence over state-wide politics, and senators from sparsely populated rural counties could form blocs to exercise oversized control state policy. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that such arrangements violated the “one person, one vote” principle that the state created the current system of 40 legislative districts that cross borders. counties.

What are counties doing: Since 1798, counties have gradually assumed more responsibility, from controlling bridges and the authority to build hospices (houses for the poor) to building roads and parks. According to the New Jersey County Association (NJAC), they now administer the state’s social service programs; maintain county jails, most state courts and most state bridges; funding county colleges, vocational schools and prosecutors; manage the elections; ensure the transport of seniors and people with disabilities; manage waste and recycling; promote economic development; and perform many other functions.

Do we need counties? Critics of the New Jersey government’s high costs often call for consolidation in some of its 565 municipalities, but in February, Congressman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) introduced legislation that would eliminate the county government. “The services provided by counties can be provided just as efficiently – sometimes with substantial savings – by state or municipal governments”, Auth wrote. The NJAC responded that cities and the state do not have the expertise or resources to support county services, and said that over the past decade, counties have saved money. taxpayers by taking on more municipal functions, such as dispatching 911, animal control and even policing in some places, at a lower cost. The association noted that the three states with little or no county government – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – are still on the list of the 10 states with the highest tax burdens (along with New Jersey). Senate Speaker Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a former independent owner and a major proponent of shared services agreements, also opposes the measure.

Counties, the backstory: At the beginning of English history, a unit called the shire or county was an administrative division of royal justice. After the British took the area which is now New Jersey from the Dutch in the 17th century, they divided the provinces of East Jersey and West Jersey into large counties: the counties of Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset in East Jersey and Burlington, Salem, Gloucester and Cape May counties in West Jersey.

The organizing principle: Initially, counties were provincial administrative units for judicial purposes. The West Jersey legislature, for example, began appointing regional judges, sheriffs, clerks, and recorders in 1682, and in the years that followed established county boundaries that define the jurisdiction of the courts. Elections were also organized around the counties, each sending a number of representatives to the provincial legislature. County borders were often defined by rivers and tracts of land of specific residents.

Create more counties: Getting to a remote county seat for court cases could be an arduous process, leading to calls for new counties. In the years leading up to the Revolution of 1776, the existing counties were divided to create four more: Hunterdon, Morris, Cumberland and Sussex. The other eight were established between 1824 and 1857, Union County being the last. Each new county brought with it a better-located yard, a larger trading hub, and, most importantly, a new roster of lawmakers. “The more counties there are, the more opportunities there are to increase a party’s control over state affairs,” according to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey.

The term “free”: In England a freeholder was a person who owned land free from debt or legal rights, and in the colonies only freeholders could hold office. In pre-revolutionary New Jersey, appointed or elected Freemakers, as well as justices of the peace, appointed tax collectors and oversaw county affairs, including the “slaughter of wolves, support the poor, and build and repair ponds and bridges. New Jersey is the only state whose county commissioners are called freeholders.

Election of free-tenants: After the Revolution, local administration was standardized by a law of 1798 requiring each county to have a council of chosen free-tenants made up of two elected officials from each town. Judges were no longer part of county councils. Over time, state election laws have often been changed for partisan purposes, allowing some municipalities, city wards, and assembly districts to elect additional freeholders, and the councils have grown huge. Essex had 40 freeholders in 1874, according to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey. A push for small boards began around the turn of the century and ended with the reforms of the mid-1960s.


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