Closed-door meetings, conflicts of interest, sex discrimination in pay scales -- those are the kind of practices Common Cause, which calls itself a citizens lobbying group, has long deplored and sought to purge from government. c

But in the last few weeks, Common Cause itself has been racked with allegations that the leaders of the Washington-based organization have engaged in those same practices.

At issue is a proposal to consolidate the organization's 40 state offices into a dozen or so regional ones, a move that the group's national staff contends is needed to help keep Common Cause solvent, but that state activists claim would, as one state memo put it, "emasculate state organizations."

"Our view is that it kills us," said Virginia Common Cause Chairman Warren Dahlstrom of the proposal, which was distributed to the states three weeks ago and is due for a final vote at meetings in Washington today and tomorrow. "It's already had a demoralizing effect on many people," he said.

"It's being rushed through and I don't understand the reasons for that," said Michigan Chairman Stephen Carter. "For someone who for five years has fought for open government meetings and open decision-making, this is awfully hard for me to swallow."

Behind it all is the question of survival for an organization that struggles to keep the public interested in questions like campaign financing and government ethics at a time when pocketbook issues like inflation, energy and taxes claim a large share of the public's attention.

Founded nine years ago by former Health, Education and Welfare secretary John Gardner, Common Cause took on "the task of opening up government," as Gardner once put it. In the aftermath of the Watergate scandals, the movement attracted strong and loyal support and boasted a nationwide membership that in 1974 exceeded 300,000.

Membership and financial strength have eroded in recent years to the point where last August Common Cause reported having about 220,000 members.

Looking for a way to retrench and cut expenditures, the group's national governing board earlier this year authorized a study committee to examine reorganization. The committee quickly targeted state organizations, which had mushroomed in the mid-1970s and some of which had developed strong and independent programs for lobbying state legislatures.

The Virginia group is considered to have one of the strongest state programs. Much of the credit has gone to Judy Goldberg, who started as a volunteer in Richmond six years ago and later became a full-time, paid executive director. Under Goldberg's leadership, the state group lobbied successfully at the Virginia General Assembly over the last four years for stiffer financial disclosure, lobbying and open meeting laws.

But insiders say Goldberg and activitsts from other states clashed several times with the organization's national staff over direction and legislative priorities.

Last summer Goldberg submitted a salary study that concluded that female state executive directors received an average of $2,000 a year or 16 percent less pay than their male counterparts, and that all state executive directors averaged considerably less pay than national staff members. Even administrative assistants on the national level averaged $1,000 a year more than the state directors.

Goldberg, who usually is willing to talk freely to reporters on any pertinent subject, refuses to comment on the survey. She won't even acknowledge that she wrote it, although other Common Cause members say she did.

Common Cause President David Cohen says state salaries are set by the state organizations, which accounts for the disparities, even though funding is channeled through national headquarters.

The salary disparities were one of the reasons cited by the study committee in its recent report advocating consolidation. It also cited a growing deficit in state expenditures -- projected to reach at least $400,000 next year -- and what it called "enormous strains between the staff and volunteers as well as between the state and national organizations."

The report, mailed to state leaders Oct. 14, has triggered a reaction that New York Chairman Howard Hoffman says "has been on the verge of hysterics."

State leaders say they are convinced the report's adoption will mean quick elimination of Goldberg and others who have offended the national staff. They are particularly incensed by a charge that the committee drafted its final report in a closed-door session early last month in Cincinnati without notifying organization members. An Ohio Common Cause official contended that committee chairman Kathleen Sebelius told her she could not attend the meeting.

"Would Common Cause tolerate a government agency's going behind closed doors to prepare recommendations of such consequence?" asked a memo circulated to state organizations by Common Cause of Virginia. "Does not our commitment to the principle of open government extend to our own governance?"

Sebelius was en route to Washington from her Topeka, Kan., home yesterday and was not available for comment.

Arthur Cecelski, another committee member who says he investigated the incident, says Sebelius told him she discouraged attendance but never told anyone the meeting was closed.

Cecelski, a Springfield resident, is himself the subject of another allegation -- that his participation in drafting the proposals constitutes a conflict-of-interest because of his wife Dorothy is a member of the national staff, which stands to benefit if the report is approved.

Not true, says Cecelski: "I'm very sensitive to conflict-of-interest issues and I don't think this is one at all."

Most of all, state leaders say they are concerned that the proposal will be rammed through this weekend by a governing board that rarely fails to approve proposals supported by the national staff.

For his part, Common Cause President Cohen denies the proposal is part of a power play or a purge of dissidents by the national staff. He notes that several heads of smaller state organizations favor the plan, which he says is necessary to maintain Common Cause's financial stability. $ cohen contends Common Cause has just as big a role to play in the 1980s as it did in the Watergate era.

"The question is still how to end the sour relationship between citizens and government, how to make sure government is accountable," he said. "For me, it's an exciting time."