With the movement under way for a city-wide referendum to repeal the City Council's weakening of the District's no-fault car insurance law, it would appear that the debate finally has shifted from a private battle between the insurance companies and trial lawyers to the public arena.

While a former civic association president proposed the referendum and thousands of District residents must sign petitions in the next few weeks in order to get the issue on an election ballot, this referendum movement is a far cry from a grass-roots operation. The referendum petition drive, though only six days old, already has the look of a high-powered political campaign.

The Yes On No-Fault Committee -- which has at least six insurance industry companies or groups as members but has not firmed up its consumer members -- has opened a referendum office in Northeast, hired a public relations outfit to coordinate and promote the referendum, and already spent $20,000 on the referendum campaign, according to Larry Mirel, the attorney representing the referendum group.

Government Employees Insurance Co.(GEICO), the biggest auto insurer in Washington, put up the first $20,000 and Mirel estimates that the referendum campaign could cost $100,000.

"It is not easy to mount a referendum effort because the time is so short," said Mirel. "It really does take some financial resources . . . . It is no secret that the insurance industry believes that no-fault is a better system. This is a high-stakes game for a lot of folks."

All the fuss is over whether the city should continue its two-year-old mandatory no-fault insurance law, which allows accident victims to receive compensation for medical expenses from their insurance companies regardless of who is at fault. The present law also prevents a person from suing for pain and suffering unless the victim has incurred at least $5,000 in medical bills or suffered disfigurement, disability or death.

Last year the council adopted amendments to that law. Those amendments would make no-fault coverage optional and remove the restriction against suing. That legislation will become law next month if the referendum movement does not succeed in suspending a congressional review period so that a referendum can be held.

The other group that has a special interest in the referendum is trial lawyers, who represent accident victims in court and have fought to get the mandatory no-fault law changed since the day it was adopted. In a December letter attached to a membership application -- membership fees range from $25 to $2,500 -- the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington told local attorneys that it is "currently concentrating our efforts on defeating the no-fault referendum proposed by the insurance industry."

Finally, the high stakes apply to taxpayers and consumers.

If a special referendum is held, it would cost about $250,000, according to officials for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

Frank P. Bolden, the past president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations who submitted the proposed no-fault referendum to the elections board, stressed that insurance companies have warned that insurance costs will increase under the new insurance amendments. He also said consumers are distressed that the City Council acted before a special study commission could review the impact of mandatory no-fault.

"We don't believe we got a fair shake through the City Council," said Bolden. "The council and the mayor allowed themselves to be stampeded to make changes before the law had run its course."

Bolden insisted that his push for a referendum was not influenced by the success of the city's first referendum, which struck down four sections of the city's rent control law. Others disagreed.

"The rent control referendum greatly influenced the decision to go for the no-fault referendum," said Debbie Chalfie, legislative director for HALT, a consumer advocacy group. "If the folks who favored rent control did it without money, we figured we have a good chance with the insurance companies on our side."

The tenant activists who backed the rent control referendum raised several thousand dollars while the real estate industry, which opposed the referendum, spent about $20,000.