When Wade Dunn went after County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist last week on the question of political patronage, Dunn also may have turned up the heat on a long-simmering issue: whether the county's merit system fosters professionalism or unduly shackles the chief executive.

Dunn, who is battling Gilchrist in the Democratic primary Sept. 14, complained that Gilchrist had appointed political allies and cronies to county jobs. Gilchrist angrily defended his appointments, calling Dunn's charges "ridiculous." But Dunn was echoing the sentiments of many Gilchrist detractors. And judging from the reaction, Dunn may have succeeded in reopening the old debate over Gilchrist's attitude toward Montgomery County's rigid civil service code -- a code that supposedly protects the county bureaucracy from politicization.

Since he came into office, Gilchrist alternately has expressed frustration with some parts of the merit system and sought to revise them. His views, proposals and actions put him at odds with some veteran county employes and members of the all-Demcratic County Council almost immediately after he took office.

Those issues, merit jobs and patronage, were at the heart of the incident that the press ultimately dubbed "liquorgate". The Merit System Protection Board, the county's watchdog over the merit system, found the system had been abused when Gilchrist hired Frank Orifici as deputy director of the county's liquor department. The board took no action, since the original complainant dropped out of the case.

So pervasive has the "merit issue" become in the local race that even members of a County Council slate openly critical of Gilchrist say they had a double meaning in mind when they dubbed themselves "The Merit Team." These council members now accuse Gilchrist of trying to "gut" the merit system through his latest proposed changes.

Only in Montgomery County, with its reputation of government so clean it squeaks, would such accusations make such good political campaign fodder. Gilchrist, defending himself against charges of cronyism, produced a list showing that his 24 appointees have a total of 44 academic degrees. jump

Gilchrist's reaction to the "cronyism" charge is in sharp contrast to the reply of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, who once dismissed the same accusation with the retort: "Who do you expect me to appoint, my enemies?"

But Montgomery County is not Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or Detroit, where county employes routinely have been expected to deliver precincts on election day. Montgomery's well-heeled political elite likes to regard itself as decidedly above politics when it comes to the functioning of county government.

Some Montgomery Countians, in fact, find "politics" more synonymous with the graft, greed and corruption of old-time city machines than the "good government" style of well-educated, affluent suburbanites. Members of Montgomery's sophisticated electorate expect their politicians to be statesmen, never political animals. They expect their bureaucrats to be professionals with multiple academic degrees, not clubhouse pols and precinct workers.

"We are the home of 46,000 federal employes -- meaning they don't do any political activity -- and that is the fishbowl we're in," said county information director Charles Maier. "They expect the government to be efficient and effective. They work with politics all day and they come home and want things nice and clean without a lot of political bombast."

In Montgomery, Maier said, "Most of the people we serve are 'Hatched' federal employes who don't like their local government tarnished with the taint of politics."

By law, Gilchrist is allowed to appoint only 24 people to the entire county bureaucracy (not counting those he names to scores of boards, commissions and task forces). "That's less than anyplace else I know of in the Western world," said executive assistant Edmond F. Rovner. Among the 24, Gilchrist is allowed three personal aides (Rovner is one) to handle whatever official tasks he gives them. Gilchrist has defended his appointments by pointing out that he knew only five of his appointees before he took office.

By contrast, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is allowed about 100 executive appointments, according to his press secretary Annette Samuels. Prince George's County Executive Larry Hogan is allowed about 100 executive appointments and can name about 500 board and commission members, said an aide.

When Gilchrist took office in December 1978, he found supporters of his GOP predecessor locked into many of the most sensitive county posts -- including those of county public information director and the county's lobbyist in Annapolis. That would be analogous to Ronald Reagan having to keep press secretary Jody Powell and congressional liaison Frank Moore from the Carter administration.

Gilchrist said then he felt the system was too restrictive. But his dismissals of some key aides from the previous administration, and his public discontent, stirred dissatisfaction among some veteran county employes, who considered the civil service restrictions necessary to safeguard the "professionalism" of the county's highly touted government.

One of Gilchrist's earliest battles came over his decision to replace the county lobbyist, Edward L. Sealover, with Blair Lee IV, son of Maryland's former acting governor. When Gilchrist tried to transfer Sealover, a respected and protected civil servant, Gilchrist became embroiled in a bitter four-week tangle with the merit system and the council. He was charged with unduly "politicizing" the county government.

Eight weeks after taking office, Gilchrist told a reporter he was frustrated by his inability to move faster in taking control of county government, so he could turn his campaign promises into programs. He called the merit system "too stringent" to give him the flexibility he needed.

Those opening battles immediately put Gilchrist at odds with veteran council member Esther Gelman, and eventually resulted in this year's decisive split among council members into two warring camps, one side headed by Gelman, the other by Gilchrist. While Gilchrist in those early days argued for more flexibility, Gelman said: "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. . . . I don't want to see people in our county government having to bid in the next election for jobs."