State Politics

Common Cause lays off two Florida staffers

MANATEE — Common Cause Florida, the nonpartisan advocacy organization that has been a fixture in the state since 1974, is laying off its two full-time staffers and transferring their responsibilities to a volunteer board as a result of a money crunch.

Alex Chavez, based in Sarasota, and Ben Wilcox, its executive director based in Tallahassee, will be out of jobs as of the end of the month, officials said.

They are among about 19 staffers facing layoffs nationally, due to declining contributions blamed on the nation’s economic weakness, said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the organization based in Washington, D.C. that still claims 400,000 contributors and supporters and will continue to employ a staff of 54.

“People are flabbergasted,” said Chavez, 56, of Palm-Aire. “Common Cause is a highly respected organization, and people just can’t believe this would happen.”

The reason for the layoffs was that donations from foundations have dropped 40 percent as a result of the recession, he said.

Chavez, business development director, said his job entailed mainly fundraising and signing up new members. The organization primarily relies on dues and contributions of its members for its financial support, according to its Web site.

“My plans for this week were to establish a chapter for Sarasota, I had 20 people to form a chapter,” Chavez said Friday. “Things had started to turn, but the situation is just too difficult.”

“It’s really bad, I’m really hoping that things get better.”

Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, a nonpartisan watchdog group that pushed for voting machines that produce a paper-ballot trail and other types of election reform, was dismayed to hear of the layoffs.

“They stand up for all Americans, all citizens in Florida, and we need champions for the people because there are plenty of special interest groups that are lobbying all the time to win their points,” said Muntz.

“We don’t have enough defenders of the people, the poor, the comfortable, everybody in between. It’s a level of integrity we need to hold tight to; it was Jefferson who said, ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ The fact is it holds true today just as it was in Jefferson’s time.”

State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, worked with Common Cause on campaign finance and election reform legislation, he said Friday.

“The person I worked with most was Ben Wilcox, a very professional and competent guy,” said Fitzgerald.

“I think this is a shame, I’m not criticizing them, I know they’re being affected by the same constraints as everybody else, but it’s a big loss for Florida,” he said.

Boyle said Common Cause can still work on Florida issues.

“In the meantime, when things heat up we hope to be involved in redistricting, we can and will send paid staff to Florida when the need arises, and hope to bring back paid staff people when it is economically feasible for us,” she said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.