Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist's proposals to alter the county's merit personnel system are at the center of the election-year political combat between Gilchrist and council opponents who accuse him of trying to destroy the powers of the Merit System Protection Board.

Last week, a council committee controlled by Gilchrist's rivals -- who have dubbed themselves "The Merit Team" -- shelved the changes he recommended. The 2-to-1 vote to postpone consideration of the changes came after a sometimes-testy debate over whether Gilchrist's proposals would discourage county workers from filing complaints against their bosses for merit system violations.

"The committee has ditched the executive's recommendations to obliterate the existing whistle-blower law," council member David Scull said after the meeting. "We are determined to report out a merit system law with real teeth."

Committee chairman Scott Fosler, a member of the slate that is supporting Gilchrist, accused the two "Merit Team" members on his committee of scuttling the entire bill solely to score political points on their pet issue.

"They're going around trying to convince people they're in favor of the merit system and no one else is," Fosler said. "That's nonsense. With all that's gone on, could you really conceive of the executive sending down a bill that's going to gut the merit system?"

The merit board monitors the county's strict civil service system, which regulates hiring and promotion of county workers. After a 14-month study, the merit board concluded last February that county officials had abused personnel rules in the hiring of Frank Orifici as deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control, but that Gilchrist was not implicated in any wrongdoing.

The County Council later introduced legislation that would enhance the board's powers and provide it with an investigator. Scull, a member of the council slate opposing Gilchrist, also proposed adding criminal penalties for anyone who violates the merit system.

Gilchrist proposed changing the council's draft bill to require the merit board to notify the county's chief administrative officer, a Gilchrist appointee, of any complaints lodged. The chief administrative officer could then take over the investigation from the merit board. "In effect, the executive branch would be investigating itself," Scull said.

Gilchrist also has proposed requiring that complaints be filed within 60 days after an alleged violation occurs. Senior management specialist Elaine M. Williams said the time limit was suggested because "in order to have a meaningful investigation of something, you can't wait forever to complain. There's no reason for the law to allow you to sit on a complaint for two or three years."

But Scull said the time limit is another example of Gilchrist's attempt to destroy the merit board's powers. There is no time limit for filing complaints in the current law.