Lawyers for the city have told a federal judge that officials cannot be prevented from issuing a demolition permit for the Rhodes Tavern just because a referendum to save the building has been placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.

In papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Flannery, who is considering a request to bar the city from issuing a permit until the vote is taken, city attorneys said administrative actions, such as those that approved a developer's plans to raze the building, should not be the subjects of referenda.

D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers said in court papers that "initiatives cannot be used to submit purely administrative decisions to the electorate." Furthermore, she contended, the initiative "is not reasonably or rationally related to the general welfare, but serves to conserve the interests of an immediate few."

A group of citizen activists recently sought the delay, arguing that issuance of a demolition permit would violate their constitutional rights to vote in the referendum.

The referendum seeks to "make it public policy to support the preservation of Washington's first town hall" and would establish an advisory board to explore ways of keeping the building intact in its present location near the White House.

A proposed commercial development on the Rhodes Tavern site by Oliver T. Carr Construction has already passed an administrative review process. In May, plans for the project were approved by the city Board of Zoning Adjustment, the last step needed before a demolition permit can be issued.

The board's approval was to go into effect Aug. 12.

A spokesman for the citizens group, Joseph N. Grano, disagreed with Rogers' arguments yesterday. The tavern, he said, "isn't like another building. It's very unique. . . ."

Flannery has scheduled a hearing in the matter Aug. 25.