esidents of this tiny southern Vermont town gathered at their traditional town meeting last week and voted to leash dogs, refurbish the bandstand on the town green and end U.S. aid to El Salvador.

At other town meetings across the state such issues as freezing the nuclear arms race and regulating shipments of nuclear waste through the community competed with the more mundane matters of whether the town should buy a new police cruiser or open a kindergarten.

And at nearly 200 New Hampshire town meetings beginning today and continuing through the week the agenda included a proposal calling on the federal government to take steps to control the acid rain that many believe is killing the state's forests and fish.

To some residents, such votes show New England democratic tradition at its finest: concerned citizens gathering to debate issues of importance, much as abolitionists used town meetings to inveigh against slavery. But others believe the proliferation of national and international issues on town meeting agendas has gone too far.

They want town meeting day to mean what it says: a gathering limited to discussion of town affairs.

"The town meeting is by no means the proper forum to address these national issues," said William Herman, moderator of the meeting in Weare, N.H., where both acid rain and nuclear freeze resolutions are up for discussion.

"These are not the legislative affairs of the town. They are nothing more than a public opinion poll that gets glorified because it's done at a town meeting," he said.

On Monday the New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered Herman to place the nuclear freeze and acid rain proposals on the agenda rather than simply holding a non-binding paper ballot without debate as he had planned.

Last week the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union issued a statement urging town meeting moderators not to stifle debate on national issues.

University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan, an expert on town meetings, is pro-freeze, but also sees the growth of "special interest" issues as a symptom of town weakness in an age when state and federal government have stripped towns of much of their power.

"I'm a defender of the old-time town meetings where the town made real decisions that affected people in an immediate sense," said Bryan. "Town meeting is weak now, and it's being used by special interests for their own particular issue.

"They're not really serious about local democracy. When their issue is no longer in, where will town meeting be?"

Supporters of such issues, however, argue that they are being true to town meeting's history as a forum for grass-roots activism.

"Town meetings have been here since colonial times as a place for individuals to speak their minds on a broad range of issues," said Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

"The whole issue of taxation without representation started at town meetings."

Ebel disagreed with the complaint that such issues as ending aid to El Salvador are completely irrelevant to a town meeting. "If you are a woman whose husband was killed in Vietnam and who has a 16-year-old son, it's a very close-to-home issue," she said. "It's difficult for me to think of an issue that is too global for town meetings."

One reason the proposals have stirred controversy, Ebel suggested, is that they generally involve liberal causes opposed by many voters in conservative New Hampshire. Still, she said, "We would be defending their right to put pro-life issues on the ballot if they so choose."

Because town powers are limited, resolutions on issues such as El Salvador or the nuclear freeze serve more as an expression of town sentiment than a plan for action.

But Sharon Francis of the Acid Rain Education Project, which helped organize the acid rain proposal, notes that even such expressions of opinion can serve as a valuable political tool.

"If I go to my congressman with my views, that's one thing." she said. "But if we vote on it as a town, and if that vote is sent to the representative, he's hearing a much bigger drumbeat. And if a number of towns vote on it, the drumbeat gets even bigger."

Francis argues that there are built-in safeguards against having town meetings being overwhelmed by debate over national issues.