When Joseph V. Vasapoli decided to become a player in Arlington civic and political affairs, one of the first moves he made was to join the Committee of 100.

"It seemed that anyone who was really active {in the county} was a member of the Committee of 100," said Vasapoli, currently a Republican candidate against Democratic incumbent Edward M. Holland for the state Senate in the 31st District.

Since 1954 the Committee of 100 -- the membership was originally limited to 100 people -- has played a pivotal role in Arlington's civic life, serving as a forum where current and often controversial issues are discussed.

The audience routinely includes civic activists, as well as members of the County Board of Supervisors, the School Board, the Planning Commission, the business community and other groups.

And though it has never taken a formal stand on an issue or lobbied for a cause, its members acknowledge that it exerts a quiet but significant influence by helping to define the civic debate in Arlington.

"It's not easy to draw a line straight from something that happens at the Committee of 100 to a county action," said former U.S. representative Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.), a regular at the meetings. "It's very subtle, it's very long-range. It frames the debate, identifies the main options and approaches" to a problem.

The committee meets the second Wednesday of every month from September through June in the dining hall of Marymount University in North Arlington. The evening begins with a buffet dinner followed by guests who discuss the night's topic. A question-and-answer period follows.

Programs in recent months have touched on affordable housing and development, as well as such broad topics as biomedical ethics.

Topics for discussion are researched beforehand and advocates for all sides of an issue are represented during a meeting, said committee officials.

In recent years the discussions have been genteel, in contrast to the more tumultuous meetings that marked the group's early years.

"You don't go to committee meetings now expecting contention," said a longtime political activist. A decade ago, "you knew it was going to be a hot meeting no matter what the topic was."

The group was founded because the Arlington population in the mid-1950s was divided into two camps, said Theodore W. Taylor, a former chairman of the Committee of 100. "There were people who worked in the District for whom Arlington was their bedroom and there were the Arlington businessmen."

Many of the newcomers were young professionals concerned about the quality of public services, particularly the schools. They favored increased government spending on such services, while the business community vehemently opposed raising the taxes that would make this possible.

"The two quarreling groups couldn't get together on anything," recalled Taylor.

Moderates from both sides created the Committee of 100 as a neutral forum for controversial topics. To preserve its neutrality, the group decided never to take a formal stand on an issue, said Taylor.

To this day the committee provides a place for the business community, civic activists, Republicans and Democrats to meet on neutral ground. The chairmanship rotates between a business leader and a civic leader, but representatives from both groups say relations between the two are cordial.

Membership has expanded to about 300 members, and is open to anyone living or working in Arlington who attends three meetings of the group, said Taylor. Applicants for membership must be sponsored by a current member.

While the committee was instrumental in accommodating the needs of the last wave of newcomers to the county, it has been less involved with the recent wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants.

Committee officials say many Asians and Hispanics are struggling to survive economically and have little time for civic activities. "There may be a tendency, particularly for new minorities, to shy away from civic organizations," said James M. Wright, the current committee chairman.

Officials are harder pressed to explain the absence of significant numbers from the black community, which has a long history in the county. "We do have some black members but certainly there could be more done to encourage more minority members," said Wright.

Marguerite B. Thomas, a black member of the group's board, said, "I'm a political activist. Other people don't see the need" to participate.

She added that the location of the meetings in the north end of the county is sometimes inconvenient for minorities who mostly live in South Arlington. Thomas takes the bus to committee meetings but said she sometimes cannot attend if she knows she will not be able to get a ride home.

The group's quiet influence is due in part to the members themselves, many of whom are active in the neighborhood or civic associations, said county board member Mary Margaret Whipple.

These people "may well then influence {their} organizations to either take a position or perhaps just inform the other members" about an issue that was discussed during a committee meeting, said Whipple.

"Often you can tell by the way the questions are going the general tenor of the group's opinion on a particular matter," said Whipple.

County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg said the committee's meetings give him an invaluable chance "to become immersed in a single issue for an hour and a-half, to have my attention focused as opposed to being pulled in a hundred different ways."

"I never participate in the discussion," he said. "I just listen."