We now have it from the highest authority -- Mayor Marion Barry himself--that the District's Office of Human Rights has suffered from serious management problems and is in need of a shakeup.

He made that point clear last week by firing Anita B. Shelton, director of that office for the past 4 1/2 years, and replacing her with Maudine R. Cooper, a prominent official in the Washington office of the National Urban League.

But when asked to explain the reason for the unexpected change, the mayor refused to say anything other than he "wasn't satisfied with her Shelton's performance."

In effect, the mayor was saying his removal of Shelton from the sensitive civil rights post was an internal "personnel matter" of no legitimte concern to the public.

"I don't know that there needs to be any further explanation," said Annette Samuels, the mayor's press secretary. "There's a new person coming in to deal with the problems."

The human rights office is responsible for resolving complaints on discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and education for 15 protected categories of D.C. citizens, including blacks, women, Hispanics and handicapped persons.

It also has a mandate to correct discriminatory practices in D.C. government hiring and promotion and must approve the affirmative action plans of D.C. agencies and contractors.

Certainly, the many thousands of D.C. residents who brought their problems to the human rights office since 1979, when Shelton assumed control, and the thousands of employers and firms that became targets of her investigations are entitled to a fuller explanation from the mayor of just went wrong in the human rights office.

Moreover, whether by design or happenstance, Shelton was out of town on vacation when the announcement of her removal was made and didn't have an opportunity to publicly offer her own defense.

For years, Barry stuck by Shelton, a former social worker and civil rights activist, despite widespread criticism of her skills as a manager and decision-maker and her inability to get along with members of the D.C. Human Rights Commission.

If he was dissatisfied with her work, the mayor had a golden opportunity to replace her last December, after his reelection, when all city department heads were required to submit their resignations.

Barry's decision last week to replace Shelton caught many at the District Building by surprise.

Just what happened since the mayor reorganized his administration in January to prompt Shelton's firing for the most part remains a mystery.

New Times, the tabloid published by the D.C. government to sing the praises of the mayor's administration, seems to have fallen on troubled times.

The paper (circulation 40,000), conceived as an upbeat monthly report on the city's accomplishments, has published only five times during the past eight months.

Bill Alexander, a city employe who edited the paper, was fired last month by Annette Samuels, the mayor's press secretary, who charged Alexander with "inexcusable neglect of duty."

Samuels told Alexander in a letter of dismissal that he was to blame for the paper's irregular publishing schedule, although Alexander says he was forced to miss a lot of work because of a bone infection.

She also claimed Alexander's inability to publish every month actually "resulted in additional cost to the District government, which has, subsequently, depleted the budget for the publication."

Alexander, who has worked previously as a freelance writer, said he is baffled by Samuel's logic.

"The budget overrun alluded to in Annette's letter, as everyone on the staff is aware, involves two unnecessary word-processing units in the Office of the Press Secretary graphics unit," Alexander said in a letter he wrote to Barry seeking to be reinstated.

" . . . I am being used as a scapegoat. And so is the paper. My sweat, blood and reputation have gone into the production of each New Times. This commitment has paid off with the paper's acceptance everywhere."

Samuels declined recently to explain what had actually caused the depletion in her budget or to defend her action against Alexander.

"You know I don't discuss personnel matters," she said.