Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who is seeking to loosen the county's stringent antiapartheid purchasing law, also plans to challenge a ruling that the eight-month-old law makes Howard ineligible for federal highway funds.

Bobo, who voted in favor of the law when it was passed by the County Council last year, said she has instructed the county public works department to draft a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking further explanation for its ruling.

Last month, the department indicated that the local law -- which as a protest of Pretoria's system of racial separation, or apartheid, prohibits the county from buying goods or services from companies that do business in South Africa -- violated federal policies. The transportation officials ruled that the law violated policies barring discrimination against contractors because of firms with whom they do business.

Bobo also said county officials will ask the local congressional delegation for assistance in changing the federal ruling.

In the meantime, she has asked the County Council to approve an amendment that would enable the county to continue to apply for about $12.5 million in federal and state grants in all areas, including highway funds. The amendment would exempt any projects funded by the U.S. government from the provisions of the law.

"I have a choice. I can let our capital projects come to a halt, or I can seek an amendment which does not weaken the law at all for any county funds," Bobo said. "It will just make us eligible for this federal money that is going to be spent, whether it's in Howard County or not."

At a public hearing on the proposed amendment last week, however, several speakers, including the president of the Maryland NAACP and the chairman of the county human rights commission, urged the county not to acquiesce.

"What is more important -- the lives of our brothers and sisters in South Africa or a million-dollar contract," said the Rev. John L. Wright, Maryland NAACP president. "I don't think we should be threatened by the federal government. Let them keep their million dollars."

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-Columbia) said he was "disturbed" by Bobo's apparent willingness to "roll over and play dead." He said he wanted to table the proposed amendment until the county could appeal the ruling.

"It appears to me that the administration went eyeball to eyeball with the federal government on this legislation and the county blinked first," Gray said.

The council is to vote on the amendment Monday.

Howard is one of 20 state and local jurisdictions nationwide whose antiapartheid laws apply to purchasing as well as investments, according to the New York-based American Committee for South Africa, a clearinghouse for information on antiapartheid efforts in this country. Under such "selective purchasing" laws, bidders seeking government contracts are required to certify that neither they nor the manufacturer of the supplies being offered have any business dealings with South Africa. The bidders also have to state whether the supplies originated in South Africa.

Last year, New York City officials, who also have a "selective purchasing" provision in their law, were able to win a temporary exception to the federal policy. The exception allowed the city to use federal funds up to the amount of its lowest bid, whether or not the bidder was in compliance with its antiapartheid law. If the city decided to award a contract to a business whose bid was higher than other bids, the city could not use federal funds for the difference.

But, according to Robert Jones, an analyst with the American Committee for South Africa, New York eventually had to amend its law in a way similar to that being proposed in Howard, despite extensive negotiations with members of Congress and federal transportation officials. The Justice Department upheld the transportation department's interpretation of the fair bidding law.

Cecil Bray, administrator of Howard's management services bureau, which oversees county purchasing and contracting, said the effect of the proposed amendment would be minimal since the law has had mostly symbolic value. Since the law went into effect Jan. 1, the county has been forced to approve 80 exceptions to the law because of its stringency, and no contracts have been canceled because of it, he said.

Several county contractors, including Howard Community College, have said that while they can account for their own business dealings, they had neither the staff nor inclination to account for all of their suppliers.

Bray said he planned to ask the County Council to amend the law to allow contractors to state that they do not know if they are in compliance with the law or not.