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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Reubin Askew, July 8, 1974. Interview A-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Florida's sunshine law boosts confidence in government

Askew describes the effects of Florida's sunshine law, which makes lawmaking more transparent, has increased the public's confidence in politicians and the legislative process. Askew describes one of his experiences with the law, where he inadvertently drew attention to himself with private meetings and quickly learned that with the law in place, making meetings public was essential.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Reubin Askew, July 8, 1974. Interview A-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
What has been the effect of the Sunshine Law?
REUBIN ASKEW:
I think substantially good. I can recall that when I first opened up a conference committee in appropriations, everybody thought, "What's happening?" And yet, for collection decisions, I really do believe that it has had a good effect.
JACK BASS:
You operated in the legislature under the Sunshine Law and also as governor, can you give us some specific examples as to how it has effected policy making?
REUBIN ASKEW:
Well, within the executive branch, for instance, it had gotten to be fairly traditional and accepted that the cabinet, sometimes the governor and the cabinet would just meet before each cabinet meeting and thrash out all their decisions, because it was considered improper to wash your dirty linen in public and then when they had the cabinet meetings . . . once in a while they would have some differences and express them in open meetings, but for the most part they just got ironed out, during the Kirk administration, the cabinet met . . . up until the passage of the Sunshine Law . . . with regularity at the Duvall Hotel every Tuesday morning for breakfast, you know, and made all the decisions they wanted to make and then they just went in and formalized them. In the legislative branch, they were, of course, covered by their own rules and particularly in the area of the senate, where prior to when a handful of us simply refused to have any more executive sessions, the questions on suspensions, with some exceptions . . . once in a while they would appoint a three man committee where a senator didn't particularly want to bear the responsibility for it . . . but for the most part, it was just an executive session, thumbs up or thumbs down and an officer either got upheld or reinstated. And now, they've got a system, Fred Caul, an extremely able person, has been a special master of it, in which they hear all of it. It's changed the whole process, because public officials, I think, hadn't really been getting complete due process. From the standpoint of local government, it has had a substantial difference, because too frequently, the decisions were made and they were perfunctorily carried out in the open.
JACK BASS:
What do you think that it has meant in terms of public confidence in the government?
REUBIN ASKEW:
Oh, I think that it has substantially improved it. I think that having meetings in the open and I have scrupulously avoided in my own case, any meetings, you know, with the cabinet that could possibly be considered violations, because I'm the one in the final analysis that has to suspend, not the cabinet members, of course, they are subject only to impeachment, but to the others. And this whole tone . . . plus, I believe that those of us, and there were a few of us in the very beginning, particularly the attorney general and myself, that disclosed all our finances to begin with. I think that the very fact that I came forward and disclosed all of my net worth, the topics of my income tax return, and I've done it ever year since, and in openess, I think that it has had a lot to do with people's attitudes toward their government and I think that even disclosure, I would concede that in a sense, it is an invasion of privacy. An extraordinary thing, but I think that in the situation that we find ourselves now in attempting to restore confidence in government, I think that it is going to require extraordinary steps. But I could not have secured the passage of this bill at the last session, I truly believe, had I not been willing to do that myself and I felt like I had to demonstrate the willingness personally before I was in a position to ask others to do so.
JACK BASS:
Do you think that the Sunshine Law makes government more effective, efficient?
REUBIN ASKEW:
Well, when you say efficient, you know, many people say that the most efficient form of government is a dictatorial one, so I don't know . . . .
JACK BASS:
Does it make a more democratic form of government?
REUBIN ASKEW:
Yes. I certainly think so. Because I think that you have a greater awareness of how you spend a dollar, I think that you have to justify it. I made a mistake a couple of years ago in which . . . you understand we used to have what was called a Budget Commission, the governor and the cabinet. They drew up the executive budget. The legislature met every two years for sixty days, pretty much rubber stamped what the governor and the cabinet prepared for them and wherein they disagreed after they left, the governor vetoed it out with great flexibility and it didn't come back for two years and it was looped. So, you really didn't have it. When I became governor I felt strongly that you've got to give it to them while they were here, but . . . tell me, what was your question again, I just rambled to another point. Bring me back on track.
JACK BASS:
You were talking about your mistake with the legislature.
REUBIN ASKEW:
O.K., so what happened was that it used to almost be a charade anyway. Everybody would come up and there was a PR pitch. I used to sit through it as a legislator as well, and when I became governor, I said, "You know, I don't have the time to waste on a bunch of superficial questions. I need to just meet with these department heads, look over their budget and ask them some hard questions." And I said, "In order to try an eliminate a bunch of speeches, I will just go in and meet with them myself, since the new constitution placed that whole responsibility in the governor and not the cabinet." It was no reflective decision, so the Sunshine Law, of course, wouldn't affect any singular public official in terms of him making his own decisions. It goes to collective decisions. And so, I just made up my mind that that was a better way to do it. Well, the press just jammed the room out here, you know, big lights. They had never paid so much attention to it. And of course, what I was trying to do to have a more effective budegtary process was completely overshadowed by the fact that here I was having a secret meeting with a department head, you know. Finally I just realized that I had made a mistake. That the importance, really, of trying to convey what I wanted to convey was more important than worrying about whether I was putting the department head on the spot by asking him a hard question and making him respond. So, I walked out into the office and I think that they thoroughly expected me to make some type of defense of it, and I just walked out and said, "I've made a mistake." I said, "I really shouldn't have done it, because it didn't work out like I had pictured." I said, "It's all open." Well, no one stayed. I think that one reporter stayed, all the cameras disappeared, you know, but I learned from that, that frankly it is to my advantage to make people justify in public what they are asking me. Because all of my decisions become public. And I have found, really, that in this process, now, we have hearings and we have some pretty good disagreements among my own department heads, you know, during the last session. You can't have somebody sitting with you all during the day and I can't feel that I can't talk to anybody without somebody sitting there, because it becomes impossible to administer. But I think that whenever you can, it's obviously to the advantage of the person making that decision to let the public know what the input was in the making of that decision. Sometimes I have been criticized by some of the press because I have had a couple of meetings with the president and the speaker of the house from time to time in the legislative session. Sometimes, that type of meeting, where none of the three of us can make a collective decision, it becomes . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
REUBIN ASKEW:
. . . together, and they have to ventilate a little, you know, to where you simply wouldn't get that. So, there may be some exceptions. Since that time, I've not even particularly attempted to do that. Because I found, really, that I was bearing the brunt for some decisions, when sometimes other people were unwilling to more clearly demonstrate what their position was. But the point is, that I think it has been probably the single biggest good effect upon government since I have been in politics. I think that, in and of itself, and I believe that it is the single biggest thing that could help in Washington. The problem is that politicians, it just scares them to death. It is a traumatic thing to think that they have to justify their decisions publicly, but really, I have the feeling that with the exception of legitimate national defense and maybe some others that I'm not aware of, they should open up the federal government and people would feel that they have a greater part in it.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Does the size and kind of the state capital press corps that you have have any bearing on this? Apparently it is the first or second largest in the country, coming to the state house.
REUBIN ASKEW:
It's not only the size, but you've got some pretty sharp people. And they follow it and follow it closely. They had that even before we opened up. But I think that opening it up enables them to do their job so much more effectively.