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WASHINGTON'S POLITICAL CYNICISM IS RUBBING OFF ON RURAL AMERICA

I KNOW IT IS SPRING, not because of the burst of daffodils, the lengthening twilight or even the lime-green glow around the trees.

I know it is spring because it is the season of the annual town meeting.The people here in Woodbridge, Conn. - population 9,000 - gather to debate and approve the yearly budget.

These days nothing about the process is appealing or uplifting. We do not sit as neighbors, questioning the merits of competing demands. We take on the demeanor of Newt Gingrich and pit bulls.

Washington's nastiness and divisiveness have left the Beltway, drifted up I-95 and spread into our little red-brick community center.

At first glance it would appear there is nothing too contentious about a $22 million budget, 60 percent of which goes for education. Our police force, public works and the library take most of the rest. The fire department is voluntary.

What, then, arouses retired men in this former Republican stronghold to spew venom at the Board of Finance? Is it because the Democrats are now in the majority? Or, more likely, because of the mood in Wash-ing-ton?

Of course there are differences over legitimate competing goals: low taxes vs. more services. But labeling unpaid board members "unethical" and "immoral" - here in rural New England when the government has been unquestionably scandal-free? This is C-Span stuff.

The financial process is lengthy. Each fall, beginning with the capital budgets, each department and commission appears with wish lists.

After work, we question and debate well into the night, for weeks. Then the process begins again with the operating budgets.

In February the budget is voted on by the selectmen and the Board of Finance. With so many competing claims, it is hard to divide the pie. In April the townspeople attend a hearing on the budget, and in May they vote on it at the town meeting.

This year barely 50 came to the preliminary meeting - and most were employees and officials who were there to answer questions. Some people who came in the spirit of civic pride were chased away within minutes by the hostile atmosphere.

It doesn't have to be this way. If we can't keep cynicism from creeping into our view of national politics, we can at least keep it at bay in our towns.