In the eight weeks he has been in office, Montgomery County's first Democratic County executive, Charles W. Gilchrist has named only three of the 21 department heads he is entitled to choose to help him turn his campaign promises into working overnment policies.

By the time the County Council this week confirmed the nomination of Blair Lee IV to be the county's lobbyist in Annapolis, the legislature already had been in session for four weeks.

All in all, Gilchrist said in an interview last week, he has been frustrated by his inability to move faster in taking control of the county government he ingerited from his Republican predecessor James P. Gleason.

Gilchrist added that, in part, he has been hampered by the rush of budget decisions that needed to be made and by legal actions chllenging two of his appointment decisions.

Most of all, he added, the county is equipped with a merit system that is "too stringent" to give him the flexibility he wants to fill the top policy positions in government.

What Gilchrist views as excessively restrictive civil service requirements, however, a number of other county officials -- including both longtime county employes and several County Council members -- see as necessary safeguards to ensure the professionalism of the county's 6,000 government workers.

Without thses safeguards, they argue, the quality of county government would fluctuate wildly as the control of the chief exceutive's office shifted from one party to another.

"I'm not an Alice-in-Wonderland, but I really do believe the underpinning of the high caliber of this government is a really good civil service," council member Esther Gelman said during a hearing on the appointment of Lee, who is the son and onetime campaign manager of former Acting Gov. Blair Lee III.

"This is the introduction of a new element we have not had in Montgomery County. I just don't want to see people in our conty government having to bid in the next election for jobs."

The clash between this philosophy and Gilchrist's has provoked several tugs-of-war as the new executive tried to juggle the few positions available to find room for his own appointees.

The case of Blair Lee provided the best example of this.

Gilchrist tried to name Lee as the lobbyist at the outset of the legislature, but found himself embroiled in an unexpected four-week tangle with the merit system and the all-Democratic council and charges that he was unduly "politicizing" the government.

Gilchrist ran into a roadblock in winning Lee's confirmation because the executive tried to make room for Lee by transferring the respected incumbent lobbyist, also a civil servant protected by merit system rules, to a lower-grade budget office job that paid less.

The incumbent, Ed Sealover, appealed tod the personnel board, and the council held up its confirmation of Lee unitl Sealover's previous grade and pay were restored in his new pooition.

"Ed wasn't upset because he was transferred, but because he thought he was part of a merit system in which you shouldn't have to be demoted because someone wins an election," said one of Sealover's friends.

Sealover originally filed a legal challenge to his transfer, but later withdrew it when he was restored to a position with status equivalent to the lobbyist's.

Another department head unceremoniously ousted by Gilchrist was former police chief Robert J. diGrazia, who immediately sued, protesting he had been fired without just cause and had a right to an appeals hearing before a trial board.

"I have said many times publicly that I made two (personnel) decisions and got legal actions against me for both," Gilchrist said in a recent interview.

"It was particularly frustrating in the case of the county's lobbyist. You'd think the executive should be able to have control over that."

At the same time Gilchrist was being criticized for "politicizing the government," some of his campaign supporters -- many of whom expected to be rewarded with government jobs -- complained he wasn't living up to what they saw as his obligation to them.

Hundreds of job-seekers have sent in applications, and now many of them are angry, according to several candidates. Galichrist said he has felt "some flak" from them.

Yet, because of the strict merit rules controlling most of the 6,000 government jobs and cutbacks in hiring necessitated by economies, "we're not going to be able to do much of anything in that regard," said Tom Stone, a 31-year-old former park planner who is Gilchrist's chief aide. "That's the tragic part of it."

When Gilchrist's chief administrator, Robert Wilson (who won swift confirmation) wanted to bring along a "talented" young intern from Prince George's to be a trainee, he discovered he had no free slots left on his staff by Gleason.

In order to conform with stiff merit rules, Wilson abolished a vacant job in another section, appropriated its salary for a position on his own staff, interviewed applicants with higher qualification than the intern for whom he wanted to make room, downgraded the job description and salary so it would be unattractive to outside candidates and appropriated the individual of his choice.

Wilson was accused by some midlevel bureaucrats of manipulating the merit laws, a charge he denies.

In addition some old hands privately snipe at two of Gilchrist's special assistants who act as policy advisers -- Stone and 23-year-old Gerry Evans -- as his campaign "errand boys," whose jobs included driving him around, and who have little experience in large government bureaucracy.

Gilchrist has decided that he will propose a government reorganization to give him several more political appointees.

"By and large it's a county government run by professionals," he said. but in addition to the 21 department heads and three special assistants he is allowed to name, "there are other policy-making jobs such as economic development and governmnetal relations that are clearly political, and they should be accountable directly to me," he said.