Maybe it was the heat that did it. The same hot, sticky, moist blanket of air that melted area asphalt last week also might have caused two of Prince George's County's chummiest political allies to lash out at each other with accusations of closed meetings, racial intimidation and turf-guarding.

In an uncharacteristic move, County Executive Parris Glendening -- having notified the press that it was coming -- sent a scathing letter to Council Chairwoman Hilda R. Pemberton, chastising her for setting a precedent based on the "politics of race" when she excluded two of his staff from a July 20 meeting with Robert M. Potter, Glendening's nominee to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Black business leaders and community activists called the meeting to discuss ways to increase the number of the agency's contracts that go to minority companies.

"We must ensure our community's opposition to bigotry and racial divisiveness," Glendening wrote. "We must reject the politics of race that have consumed other communities. If issues are of substantive public policy, they must be discussed openly by all of the community, independent of race."

The usually reticent and loyal Pemberton, "hurt and angered" by what she saw as a personal attack, was heard by one colleague to mutter that in retaliation she would "kick Glendening's" rear on legislation for the rest of the session. She has denied the meeting was closed, saying it was merely a private discussion in her office.

The angry exchange, after weeks of sniping between Glendening and key black activists, may be the first sign of cracks in the alliance between the white executive and an increasingly vocal black community, observers said.

Black political and business activists said their opposition to Potter's confirmation was a tactic used to spotlight the need for blacks to get a piece of the county's growing economic pie. They succeeded: After Potter agreed to support several proposals to boost the number of WSSC contracts that go to minority firms, opposition faded and he was confirmed to the board July 21.

Glendening maintains that criticism of Potter was deliberately divisive and merely political jockeying by some blacks for leadership in the black community.

That comment caused those blacks involved to bristle, and in a letter to Glendening this week they demanded a public apology.

"Your racial comments directed toward the chairwoman and other black elected officials is indicative of your apparent insensitivity to legitimate issues of the black community," the letter said.

"This could hurt him {if he runs for reelection}," one black elected official said. "It was stupid to attack Pemberton, who has always been his point person on the council, especially after the appointment had been confirmed."

Glendening is on vacation this week, but his spokesman Tim Ayers said he doubts there will be a public apology.

For months, black elected officials and business leaders have been pressuring Glendening to be more forceful in helping blacks share in the economic development boom.

They have asked Glendening to use his political influence to get private developers to hire more black firms. They also want him to revamp the county's minority procurement system, which is lagging behind a goal to award 30 percent of contracts to minority companies, including creating a contract set-aside policy for minority businesses, a policy Glendening has resisted but is reconsidering.

Also, in what is seen as a direct challenge to Glendening's power base, several black elected officials are supporting a charter change to "It should be expected that we sometimes disagree and disagree strongly."

-- Parris Glendening

allow the council chairman to be elected countywide for a four-year term. Their reasoning: An elected chairman would have as much agenda-setting power as Glendening and would be in the best position to ascend to the executive's office.

The letter to Pemberton, in its tone and intensity, caught many by surprise, especially Pemberton. Glendening, still miffed that Pemberton voted to delay Potter's confirmation after pledging to support him, denounced the meeting. He said that in the future he would forbid his nominees from meeting in private sessions on policy issues.

"Closed meetings with all black or all white is not the way we want to run government in Prince George's," he said.

By week's end, after a half-hour meeting to hash out the issue, both Glendening and Pemberton tried to put a good face on their spat. A summer recess for the council beginning this week allowed both sides to pull back for wound-licking.

"It should be expected that we sometimes disagree and disagree strongly," Glendening said. "I assured her I have confidence in her. I told her, 'Peace, love and harmony.' "

"You can't dwell on things that have happened in the past," Pemberton said.