When the Howard County Animal Matters Hearing Board meets tonight, its members will be reopening one of the most sensitive chapters in recent county history.

The subject is dogs, vicious ones to be exact, and how the government should deal with them and their owners. County Executive Elizabeth Bobo has asked the board to solicit public comment tonight and begin drawing up legislation that would strengthen the existing animal control ordinance.

Sounds simple, right? But anyone who witnessed the issue's debut here in August, at a time when an anxious public and the seasonal lull in news stories combined to put a pit bull terrier on the cover of Sports Illustrated, knows better. By September the so-called "doggie bill" had gone down in defeat and created a temporary rift among Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, his council colleagues and the county executive.

This week, there have been signs that the wounds are not all healed. Although the council was notified of the subject of the board's meeting, Gray said he does not plan to be there. He said he is upset because the administration has failed to consult him on a subject on which he developed a special expertise.

"They are in a much better position than I was when I proposed my bill," Gray said. "We didn't know who was interested, so we had to propose the legislation, run it up the flagpole and see who saluted. They have a list of 90 people who testified at a public hearing and the testimony to work with.

"Obviously, they are not sensitive to my intentions and concerns. The fact is, they consider me one of the public. But I would think given my keen interest they would suggest I meet with animal control officers to discuss my suggestions."

For those who had the good sense to spend their summer evenings somewhere besides a hot hearing room, the drama unfolded like this:

Gray, in what was one of the first major actions since the council was installed in December, introduced a bill that would have imposed new requirements on owners of "vicious" or "potentially dangerous" animals, would have increased the penalties significantly for bites inflicted by vicious animals and would have given the animal control officer authority to confiscate and kill animals that had caused harm to a person or another pet.

Despite Gray's efforts to sell the bill at public meetings and in television interviews, his legislation drew loud and heavy opposition from dog breeders and pit bull owners from Baltimore to Virginia.

Animal Control Officer John Garrity supported it, but Public Works Director James Irvin, whose department oversees the county's animal control functions and who represented Bobo at the meetings, did not. During one public hearing, Gray forbid Irvin from testifying first, a move that other officials said breeched the council's long-standing policy of letting administration staff members have their say early in the evening.

Two work sessions and several weeks later, a heavily amended version of the bill came up for a vote and stalled 2-2, with one council member absent.

Gray and cosponser Charles Feaga voted in favor of the bill but eventually changed their votes, which would have allowed them to call for a revote at the Sept. 28 meeting. When that day came, however, Gray was absent and Feaga didn't raise the subject. And for a month, at least, it wasn't too good an idea to mention dogs around the council office.

Asked about his bill this week, Gray said he believes that Bobo "pulled out as many guns as she could" to see it defeated.

Eugene Weiss, one of Bobo's administrative assistants, denied that the county executive fought to defeat Gray's bill because she had been planning something similar. She is brining the issue up now, he said, "because she made a commitment to do it."

"The administration thought the process {last summer} was somewhat backward" because the legislation should start with the board, he said.