On Town Meeting Day, Vermont Towns Take Aim At Presidential Candidates' Tax Returns

Mar 8, 2017

On Town Meeting Day, local politics went national as a number of Vermont towns weighed in on presidential campaign ethics. 

In Jericho, voters decided to support state and federal efforts to require that future presidential candidates release their tax returns. 

The Jericho couple that started the motion, Bill Butler and Susan Harritt, encouraged other Vermonters to raise the measure in their towns.

Similar motions passed in Richmond, Bolton, Williston, East Montpelier, Worcester, Middlesex and Peacham; Butler says Underhill rejected its motion.

The measure, as Butler and Harritt introduced it in Jericho, requests that local officials express their support for financial transparency. More specifically, the motion pledges support for pending legislation in the Vermont Statehouse that would require presidential candidates to disclose their federal tax returns in order to be eligible to appear on the election ballot.

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To be clear, motions brought up in a town meeting's "other business" are non-binding, because they are not listed among the warned town meeting articles.  

"It's not 'business proper before the town,' so, to that extent, it would be an advisory vote, more like a public opinion poll," says Karen Horn, the director of public policy and advocacy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.  "The purpose isn't to make it binding to the town. The purpose is to send a message."

Vermonters say small towns should be heard, too

Jericho resident Elizabeth Bernstein spoke in favor of the measure at her town meeting, saying that it's important for towns to speak up when the federal government isn't doing something that citizens think is important.

"And this motion is saying, 'We want to know all of the financial dealings that the people who are running for the highest office in the land. We want to know what their financial dealings are,'" Bernstein said.

All presidential candidates since 1976 — except Republican Gerald Ford — have released at least one tax return.

Some prefer to leave these rules to the feds

But not all Jericho residents supported the idea that the town should get involved. Ned Dubois said the federal government already has requirements for what financial information candidates must submit.

"If the ethics committee doesn't desire to have taxes as a requirement for running for president, wouldn't they be the ones to ask, not Jericho Town Meeting?" Dubois asked.

Federal law does require presidential candidates to file disclosures about their sources of income, transactions, liabilities and assets — and they also must release information about their spouses and dependent children.

With three Jericho residents speaking for the measure to support disclosure, and two speaking against, the measure passed the town meeting on a voice vote.