Nearly 150 leaders from small towns across Maryland converged on Hyattsville last week to map out strategies for attacking their common problems of economic stagnation, housing decay and poor relations with federal, state and county governments.

The conference, sponsored by the University of California Washington Public Affairs Center, attracted political leaders and administrators from municipalities as far away as Easton and Westminster, and as nearby as District Heights and Mount Rainier.

Among the topics discussed were business revitalization, housing rehabilitation, fiscal and waste management and historic preservation.

One theme, however, ran through all of the discussions and speeches: Poor communication between levels of government and the lack of citizen participation in policy making have hampered efforts to improve the quality of life in small towns.

The message was first sounded by the keynote speaker, Arthur J. Naparstek, director of the California center, who argued that small towns and neighborhoods were being ignored.

"In policy terms, the neighborhood is not seen in the total context but as an isolated entity," he said. "We have not made the linkages between where people live -- the neighborhood or small community, the city, the state, the federal government, and in fact the world."

"We know more about national and regional economies than we know about neighborhood economies, but that's where we spend all of our money or much of it."

Naparstek told the crowd of municipal leaders gathered in the auditorium of the closed Ager Road Elementary School, that the county, state and federal governments would be best served by allowing the neighborhoods and municipalities to play a greater role in decision-making.

"Government faces a choice -- defend centralization of power against rising demands and shrinking resources or admit neighborhoods in the voluntary sector to real partnership and policy-making authority in the delivery of services and fiscal responsibility for meeting community needs," he said.

The same theme ran through the seven workshop meetings held during the day-long session. The discussions revolved around the problems of historic preservations, business revitalization, fiscal and waste management, land use and zoning, housing rehabilitation, and traffic and transportation planning.

Over the past year, staff members of the public affairs center have trained and sought to equip city officials in Hyattsville with the public administration tools to solve these problems. A similar University of Southern California training project for municipal leaders is being run in Pittsburgh, Calif.

Political leaders and administrators from Hyattsville led off most of the meetings, describing their experiences in seeking to bring their town of 15,000 back to life after economic stagnation had set in.

In addition to the expected difficulties of getting enough funding, they said they had problems in winning support for their proposals until they sought more citizen participation.

"We were running into opposition at every turn when we first began our efforts to revitalize the Rte. 1 business area," said Hyattsville City Council member Robert Trumbule. "It didn't take very long for us to figure out that we wouldn't get anywhere until we gave the local citizens and businessmen a chance to have some input in the planning process."

In an interview later, Hyattsville Mayor Thomas Bass spoke of the difficulties in getting the federal government to take into account the diversity of problems among municipalities.

"The parachute approach has proven in the past that it won't work in most cases," said Bass. "The government can't just drop these various programs on the municipalities from up high. They need input from the small towns and communities before they can design effective programs. A partnership is an absolute necessity."

At the conference luncheon, Lt. Gov. Samuel Bogley described state efforts to help municipalities in such areas as business revitalization. He said state officials had even considered locating some of state offices in Cumberland and Salisbury to stabilize the business districts of those towns.

"Small towns are very important," said Bogley. "They are the building blocks for the revitalization of the economies in both our state and our nation."

"I guess communication has been the buzz word this afternoon," conference coordinator Wendy Sherman told the group later in the day. "One of the tenets we've learned is that everybody has resources and expertise. There are no quick solutions to any of the problems and no one level of government has all of the answers."

Municipal leaders said they generally were pleased with the conference.

"I always get a great deal out of conferences like this," said District Heights Mayor E. Michael Roll. "No matter how small it is, you always get something out of the information exchange."

"I share a lot of the same views on the importance of communication between all levels that we talked about today," said Mount Rainier Mayor and Prince George's Municipal League President Linda Nalls. "The problem is that communication doesn't always solve the problem. My city has had problems getting projects started even when we have had good communications.

"I also think the conference was geared a little too much to Hyattsville's problems and not enough towards other areas."