For use Sunday, March 15, and thereafter

Ex-Gov. Askew:
Early champion of open government

Eds: This is one of six profiles about Florida open government advocates and two related stories moving in advance for Sunshine Sunday.

By GERALD ENSLEY
Tallahassee Democrat

Reubin Askew

Reubin Askew | download this photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Reubin Askew has always been a straight arrow. He never smoked, never drank, doesn’t cuss, goes to church and opposes all forms of gambling.

Heck, as an Air Force intelligence officer in the early 1950s, he was uncomfortable overseeing airplane reconnaissance photographs of Western Europe because it violated existing treaties.

So it only follows that when Askew entered public service, he would become one of the greatest champions of Florida’s century-long pursuit of open government.

“You’ve got to remember in government whose business you’re doing: the people’s,” he said. “And if you’re doing the people’s business, you’ve got to give them the tools to judge the product.”

Reubin O’Donovan Askew was governor of Florida from 1971 to 1979. Before that he spent 12 years in the Florida Legislature, including eight years in the state Senate. He has been a candidate for U.S. president (1984) and the U.S. Senate (1988).

In every role, Askew advocated open government. As a legislator, he was one of the most active supporters of Florida’s 1967 Sunshine law, which required open meetings for government boards. As governor, he led the campaign to pass Florida’s 1976 Sunshine Amendment, which required financial disclosure by all public officials, candidates and employees.

He helped the late U.S. Senator (and later Florida governor) Lawton Chiles draft federal financial disclosure laws. He was instrumental in persuading the Democratic Party to enact open procedures.

“(Askew) was pivotal in Florida. But really, he was a national leader,” said Richard Feiock, a Florida State University professor of public administration. “(Askew’s efforts) were an attempt to make the process transparent and enhance the credibility of public decision-making with the citizens. We think of it as routine now, but it was revolutionary at the time.”

Askew, 80, continues to promote good government. He has spent the past 10 years teaching a graduate seminar in public administration at FSU, his alma mater. He spent 10 years before that teaching at each of Florida’s other 10 public universities.

Askew was first elected to the legislature in the era of the Pork Chop Gang, a sobriquet hung on the rural legislators who wielded disproportionate power in a then-malapportioned legislature. He saw laws made in closed door sessions, with one legislator voting the proxies of 10 others. He saw reporters kicked out of meetings where public issues were discussed.

The system propelled him and other legislators to advocate for more openness in making laws. Their efforts bore fruit as the 1967 Sunshine Law, which required government meetings to be open to the public.

“In most cases, it’s easy to determine right and wrong (on an issue),” Askew said. “But if the people don’t have the facts to judge it by, that builds resentment and they have resentment for government in general.”

As governor, Askew brought similar “sunshine” to the finances of public officials. Early in his first term, several members of his Cabinet and the Florida Supreme Court were accused of accepting illegal gifts or payments. It was also common practice then for legislators to have “slush funds” of unregulated cash ostensibly intended for their campaigns.

Dismayed by the influence of money on the governmental process, Askew lobbied for financial disclosure laws, a ban on gifts to legislators and a hiatus period before officials who left government were allowed to lobby their former organizations.

When three consecutive legislative sessions failed to enact such laws, Askew took the proposals to the people by employing a process granted by the state’s 1968 constitution: a voter-approved amendment to the constitution. Askew successfully collected the required eight percent of registered voters’ signatures 210,000 signatures to get the “Sunshine Amendment” on the 1976 ballot. The amendment was approved by 78 percent of voters and became the first citizen initiative added to the Florida constitution.

Askew believes the most effective part of the Sunshine Amendment has been the provision that requires former elected officials to take a two-year hiatus before becoming lobbyists. But he laments the press generally treats financial disclosure as a “curiosity,” by reporting only a public official’s current net worth without tracking previous years.

“I felt strongly the people have the right to judge net worth year-to-year,” Askew said. “If there is a big jump, (the public officials) need to come forward and explain it.”

Yet Askew believes Florida’s sunshine regulations “absolutely” have been effective. He remains convinced open government means better government.

“People say you can’t legislate morality and that’s true,” he said. “But you can create an atmosphere that very much leads to openness and let the public decide what’s moral and what’s not.”

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