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Apathy derails worthy causes

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

Dorothy and Bud Wylie moved to Port Richey 27 years ago, retirees from New York eager to put their new found time into civic activism.

Bud, a former journalist with the Associated Press, and Dorothy, who had taught learning disabled elementary schoolchildren, focused their energy on the good government advocacy group, Common Cause. They had to travel to Pinellas County for the meetings. It was three years before Pasco formed its own chapter.

Dorothy became the local coordinator and served on the state board. Bud wrote the group's newsletter. At their peak, Common Cause monthly gatherings drew about three dozen participants in west Pasco. Sixty or so would come to the annual meeting.

The agenda grew familiar over the years. Campaign finance reform and an independent panel to redistrict the state's legislative and congressional boundaries are top priorities. Fifteen years ago, Common Cause advocated an issue that resurfaced in 2002 -- ending sales tax exemptions in Florida's tax code.

Though Common Cause is resistant to allowing its name to be affiliated with local issues, the Wylies, in the 1980s, used the group's moniker to push for better maternity care for west Pasco's pregnant women. "We kind of did it without permission," Dorothy confessed.

In 1986, the Wylies worked to pass the word on the benefits new parks and libraries would bring if voters approved pending bond issues. It brought interesting talk across the fence. Her next-door neighbor headed the West Pasco Allied Council, WESPAC, and opposed the property tax increase. Voters sided with the Wylies.

"A lot of times it seems you're wondering if it's doing any good, but you just keep at it and it might come into effect," said Dorothy, who cites President Bush's March 27 signature on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation as the group's greatest accomplishment.

The celebratory mood was short-lived. After next month, anybody wanting to attend a Common Cause meeting again will have to travel outside the county. The Pasco chapter is becoming inactive, a victim of old age.

The Wylies are both 87 this year. Nobody has stepped forward to lead the group. The roster totals about 100 dues-paying members, but active participants are down to about 10. Fifteen came to the monthly meeting five days ago.

"Nobody is there to do it," said Dorothy. "It makes me sad."

It's not exclusive to Common Cause. Saturday, the Pasco Chapter of the League of Women Voters, which also has been unable to find new officers, was poised to forgo its local organization and try to remain in existence as an affiliate of the state group.

As you might have surmised, the league and Common Cause share many of the same members in Pasco County. Affiliating with the state allows the locals to retain the league's name and sponsor candidate forums and its monthly discussions of hot issues. But, it also signals the end of the independent chapter here.

Both groups are done in by demographics. Pasco is growing younger. Senior citizens -- northern retirees lured by modest-priced housing in the 1970s and '80s -- are aging, while new, younger residents are distracted by the demands of families and careers.

Traditional civic activism also has been changed by the Internet. List servers, discussion groups and e-mail allow an individual to reach a mass audience -- or zip a note to the governor or a county commissioner -- from the comfort of his or her home. Congregating in person can be an unnecessary inconvenience for those accustomed to the cyber community.

But the biggest reason is too familiar.

"There's too much apathy," observed Beatrice Meyers, one of the Pasco League's co-presidents. "People complain when things don't go their way, but they won't study the issues and get involved."

Besides voter education, the league focused on local issues: the county's comprehensive land-use plan, homelessness, and water resources. It pushed unsuccessfully for an appointed rather than elected school superintendent.

The league drew criticism from some quarters in New Port Richey for failing to conduct a candidate forum in the recent municipal election. The group does so when asked, Meyers said. Nobody asked.

It epitomized Meyer's point of view. Most of the public is reactionary. They get excited after the fact instead of being proactive.

Besides, Meyers said, the forums have deteriorated from public education into contests among the candidates to see who can stack the audience with the most supporters.

Sadly, one more explanation for the groups' demise can be found in their own agendas. Both Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have good government and public education as their platforms.

It leaves little room for ulterior motives.

"Leadership gets no part of a big prize," said Dorothy Wylie. "It isn't self-serving."

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