For nearly a year, Alexandria City Council member Donald C. Casey had been fuming over the way city Real Estate Assessor David J. Chitlik ran his office. What burned Casey the most, he kept saying, were what he called this year's "unreasonable" hikes in assessments on highrise apartment buildings.

Today, however, you'd never know there had ever been any problems. To hear Casey talk, all is well because City Manager Douglas Harman, Chitlik's boss, is "sensitive" to improving the image and operation of the assessor's office.

Why the sudden about-face?

In fact, what happened is a case study in how the upper rank of Alexandria's city government works out its internal disagreements so as to avoid public confrontations.

It also is a lesson in how a politician saves face.

"I wouldn't say it's typical," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. of how Casey ended up with a smile on his face. "But it's good that we can all sit down together and talk."

Here's what happened: Shortly after Chitlik sent out this year's reassessments last spring, Casey -- as well other council members -- began receiving complaints. Most came from apartment building owners, whose assessments increased an average of 45 percent.

Chitlik defended his reassessments by saying he was forced to greatly increase them because many city apartment buildings have been selling for substantially higher prices since buyers planned to convert them into expensive condominums. Harman supported his actions, which were designed to bring the assessments in line with the properties' market value.

Casey strongly disagreed with Chitlik's handling of the situation, however. When he didn't get immediate satisfaction, he started advocating a radical rewriting of the city's charter which would have removed the assessor's office from the city manager's supervision and placed it under council control. It also would have given the council the power to appoint a new assessor if it chose.

The move was sure to get someone's attention, and did.

Even though Casey's proposal had little support among other council members, the threat of a public brawl was enough to create the atmosphere for what Casey called a "very good discussion."

The day before the council's Nov. 23 meeting, Casey asked for a meeting with Beatley, Harman and Deputy City Manager Bradford Hammer.

The next day, Casey abruptly withdrew his proposal to revise the city charter.

What had occurred behind closed doors was a compromise. It was decided that Casey would cease pressing for council control of the assessor's office while Harman tried to work out solutions to some of Casey's greatest concerns, including keeping the City Council abreast of major shifts in local real estate trends. Nothing could be done about the assessment increases, however.

"We have worked together for seven years," Casey said of Harman. "And this was the first time I think he didn't know what he was dealing with. The issue was not Harman, but the administration of that [assessor's] office."

Casey said later he never really intended to wrest control of Chitlik's office from Harman.

"I didn't play 'gut ball' on that is sue," Casey said. "I just wanted to get the manager's attention."

Said Harman: "The only fact is that it did not go to a final vote. One can only surmise the various reasons why it did not."

Harman said it was fortunate that the issue is being resolved in a "noncombative" way.

"We're all the same government," Harman said. "If members of City Council make the city staff look bad, in a way they are making themselves look bad.... I think there is a very large incentive to try to be cooperative and ty to understand each other's perspectives."

Council member Patricia Ticer said she was glad the conflict wasn't fought in public. "It would have been very destructive," she said. "Minor disagreements could loom into major factors."

Such political brinkmanship, however, should be resorted to only as a last resort, said council member Margaret Inman, one of the council's two Republicans.

"Any time one has a problem, the very logical thing to do is go talk to the city manager," she said. "I think Don [Casey], putting the issue before the council for a vote, showed us how strong his feelings were about it."

Casey, although in better spirits about the assessor's office these days, said he expects Harman to make some changes in the assessor's operation by spring.

"If there aren't, Harman's going to blow the whole thing," Casey said. "I can always go back to confrontation."