The Alexandria City Council yesterday named Vola T. Lawson, assistant city manager for housing, as the temporary replacement for outgoing City Manager Douglas Harman.

At the special meeting, the seven-member council also voted to remove Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel from the line of succession to the city manager's post. A special grand jury is investigating allegations that Strobel, a Harman appointee, mishandled a police drug investigation.

"I feel like I've been named the pinata at a pinata party," Lawson joked after being appointed the city's temporary top administrator.

On Feb. 27, the day after Harman is scheduled to leave Alexandria to become the city manager of Fort Worth, Lawson will take over the office until a permanent city manager is selected, in three to four months.

At least one Republican was seething because the four votes that elected Lawson were all from Democratic members of the council. Republican Carlyle C. Ring, who, like Republican Margaret B. Inman, could not attend the hastily called meeting because of a previous commitment, said, "I strongly object to the holding of a special meeting."

In a letter to the council, Ring termed Mayor Charles E. Beatley's decision to name an acting city manager at the special meeting, "arbitrary and capricious."

Republican Robert L. Calhoun was present yesterday but abstained from the vote, saying he approved of Lawson but objected to the Democrats who "weren't interested in what the minority thought."

Beatley said a letter that senior staff administrators sent him last week, stating their preference for Deputy City Manager Clifford H. Rusch to be named acting city manager, prompted him to call the special meeting.

The mayor called the letter "unethical" and said it was a "serious intrusion" by the professional staff into the role of the policy-making council.

Calhoun joined the council Democrats in the 5-to-0 vote to drop Strobel's name from the line of succession to the manager's post. "If you have a police chief under controversy, you might as well leave him out," Calhoun said.

Several City Council members said they altered the line of succession, which now includes Rusch, Director of Transportation Dayton Cook and Deputy City Manager Brad Hammer, because they were more appropriate than the director of public safety.

But council member Donald C. Casey, who stirred up the initial inquiries into wrongdoing in the public safety department, said he voted to drop Strobel's name because "I don't think he will be a city employe much longer."

Casey said he thought Harman should have put Strobel on administrative leave as soon as the allegations arose that Strobel improperly halted a police drug investigation.

The special grand jury begins its fourth week of hearing testimony on Tuesday, when Casey and Strobel are scheduled to appear.