The Montgomery County Council's bitter debate last week over strengthening civil service protections for county workers was fairly typical of the council's warfare over the last four years. Beginning in the early morning, members spent 10 hours sniping at each other and splitting into factions on key votes. In the end, they unanimously approved the final bill.

Most council votes end up unanimous. Both sides wanted a strong civil service system, just like both sides want controlled development, controlled spending, controlled smoking in public places and controlled crime. Even unanimous votes are preceded by hours of name-calling and factional bickering, charges of bowing down to the executive branch and counter-charges of playing to the press.

In less enlightened jurisdictions, council members will argue over substance -- questions of big spending, for example, versus tax reform. In wealthy and well-educated Montgomery, the feud on the all-Democratic council is over philosophy and style. After bickering among themselves for four years, the council members are asking voters to resolve the feud in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. Twenty-one candidates are running on three slates for seven council seats. Five of the seats are district seats, two are at large.

The candidates' philosophical differences revolve around the rather lofty principle of "council independence of the executive," or whether the council or the executive should set policy.

"Most of the bills have been initiated by the executive and most of the council has voted for them," says council president Neal Potter. Potter, who is heading the "United Democrats" slate endorsed by county executive Charles W. Gilchrist, doesn't see anthing wrong with that because most bills involve the administration of government and not broad statements of policy.

Council member Esther P. Gelman, leader of the opposition "Merit Team" slate, believes the council should be more of a check on the executive. "Traditionally the council has been the policy-making branch of government," she says. "For the first eight years [1970 to 1978] you had a split between a Republican executive and a Democratic council. They watched each other like hawks, and I think we had better government for it. Now that we have a Democratic executive . . . the executive has come to expect us to support him, but we can't just rubber stamp."

The differences over the role of the council become more significant given the pace of growth in the county and the parallel growth in the responsibilities of local government. Once a rural bedroom suburb of Washington, governed small-town style by a once-a-week council, Montgomery has evolved into a urban center of more than 570,000 that needs a full-time county executive.

The council elected in November could determine whether the county's fledgling executive form of government, created in 1970 and stymied by partisan bickering, will emerge into a strong office comparable to a real big-city mayor, or whether the executive will be constrained by a council reluctant to cede any more of its power.

Besides philosophy, the Democratic primary race revolves largely around personalities. The United Democrats are the low-key council members who get excited about the more mundane workings of county government like sewer maps and council procedure. The Merit Team members -- both on and off the council -- generally are outspoken, and call numerous press conferences, introduce lots of bills and mail out an endless stream of press releases.

The Merit Team has raised the most money of the slates -- almost $50,000 as of the Aug. 17 reporting period -- and has spent $20,000, mostly for two mailings to Democratic voters. The United Democrats, even with help from the Gilchrist campaign treasury, are lagging behind in fundraising, with only $23,000 raised and more than half of that already spent.

The United Democrats call their opponents "The Demerit Team" and accuse them of headline-grabbing, while showing no respect for council procedure and no tolerance for legislative detail. The "Merit Team" members disdainfully refer to their opponents as the "Rubber Stamp Slate," and boast that they have initiated every major bill before the council.

Of course such differences may seem a little complex for the less cerebral voters. "When you get right down to it," says Rockville Mayor William Hanna, a Merit Team council challenger, "the whole thing is kind of ridiculous."

This feeling has prompted some citizen activists to form their own "slate," although they hesitate to call it that. The citizens are badly underfunded, relying primarily on the county's well-connected network of civic groups and associations.

In the 1st council district, council member Scott Fosler, a 37-year-old public administration specialist, is being challenged by "Merit Team" member Dr. Alfred Muller, 40, a physician, and Phillip Ochs, 30, a lawyer and citizen activist. Fosler's base of support traditionally has been among civic groups.

Muller, chairman of the Friendship Heights Village Council, has made headlines during the village's battles with the county on zoning. He also sponsored the village's widely publicized ban on bullets, as a way to combat rising crime in the tiny enclave on the District of Columbia's western border.

Fosler angrily accuses his opponent -- and other Merit Team council members -- of seeking publicity by calling press conferences and making ill-conceived proposals. "I believe in making government work more efficiently -- all of the things that are unglamorous," Fosler said.

Gelman, 51, a former planning board member running for reelection to the council from the 2nd district, is being challenged by Joan Hatfield, 43, a lobbyist for the real estate industry, and by citizen activist Allan S. Cohen, 38, an education administrator. Gelman is stressing the Merit Team theme of preserving the council as the policy-making branch of government. "The council is worth treating as an independent body, or why do we have it?" she asks.

Hatfield, a Germantown resident, said she is running partly to give representation to the forgotten up-county, that part north of Rockville that often feels forgotten since it has no local legislative representatives. She also said the council wastes too much time.

Cohen says he was prompted to run by the fact that both Gelman, who has received a large chunk of her campaign money from developers, and Hatfield, represent the real estate and development industry. "Shall Montgomery County be run for the benefit of its citizens," he asks, "or do we continue to have the county run for the benefit of a few special interests?"

In the 3rd council district, which includes Rockville, council member Ruth Spector, 47, a former social worker and teacher, is being challenged by former Rockville Mayor Hanna, 61, and by Elvera Berson, 52, a state employe and the former president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

The low-key Spector was Gilchrist's legislative aide when the executive was a state senator in Annapolis. Now she is one of Gilchrist's principle supporters on the council.

"I am a practical social worker who believes in getting things done and not talking about it," said Spector. "I'm not somebody who hogs the limelight. I think my opponent is quite the opposite."

Said Hanna, "Philosophically, I think the independence issue is the most important issue in this whole campaign . . . The current council simply has failed to set policy. All they do is sit back and wait for the executive to propose something."

The 3rd district race has been dominated by Hanna's repeated call for a debate with Spector. He has dubbed her "the invisible woman" for so far managing to avoid answering his call. Hanna did get one unexpected acceptance -- from Berson, the citizen challenger who reminded him that there was a third person in the race.

In the 4th council district, incumbent Michael Gudis, a 46-year-old consultant on the Merit Team, is being challenged by Leonard Teitelbaum, 51, a member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and Carol G. Henry, 40, an Olney area citizen activist.

Gudis is touting his experience as an accountant and fiscal expert, and has promised to make his next term on the council a full-time occupation. In the last few weeks he has introduced several new bills dealing with criminal penalties for race- and religiously-motivated violence.

Teitelbaum is stressing his work experience as an engineer -- an expertise he says could have helped the council during its long and sometimes technical debate over a county landfill in Laytonsville. He most recently unveiled a new proposal for turning abandoned school buildings into low-rent sites for beginning small businesses.

Henry, meanwhile, is accusing the incumbent council and the planning board for neglecting their responsibility to take a role in last year's school closing decisions. The council has maintained that the decisions were the job of the independently elected school board. Henry said the council and the planning board should have mapped out a school closing strategy years ago, since school closing decisions affect housing, land-use and community stability.

In the 5th district, council member Rose Crenca on the Gilchrist-backed slate is being challenged by former school board member Thomas Israel, 54, who is running with the Merit Team. Also running is Robert Raymond Fustero, 31, a marketing representative, who is not well known and not aligned with a slate.

Crenca, a 56-year-old researcher and teacher, is the United Democrats' member who has been most openly critical of the Gilchrist administration. She announced her reelection campaign with the caveat that she is opposed to slates in general, but was being forced into it by fiscal realities.

Stressing the "doer" theme of his Merit Team mates, Israel mailed out a letter to precinct chairmen reminding them of his reputation as an innovator on the school board from 1968 to 1976. "Mrs. Crenca has proposed few pieces of legislation and has had none enacted," he said. "Blank, zero, zilch."

Also, Israel is attacking Crenca on the issue of low-income housing in the county. Crenca has been the most vocal critic of the Housing Opportunities Commission and some of its rezoning proposals to provide low-income housing.

Four Democratic candidates are running at-large. Potter, a 67-year-old economist, has teamed up with former teacher and union president Henry (Hank) Heller, 41, to round out the United Democrats slate. Running on the Merit Team slate is incumbent David Scull, a 39-year-old lawyer and son of the late council member Elizabeth Scull. David Scull flirted twice this year with the idea of running for executive. He has teamed up with former Montgomery College Board Chairman Jean Ross, 60.

Challenging them on the citizen's slate is public health nurse Audrey Carpenter, 50, who is also a county employe. Carpenter recently held a press conference to blast Scull and the Merit Team for grandstanding on the issue of protecting the county's civil service.

Also running at large is E. Dale Boyd, 42, a Rockville sales manager.