Her schedule for the week was horrendous, but County Council member Rose Crenca remembers looking forward to having a quick lunch with her friend, civic leader Joan Ennis.

But now, almost three months later, the content and the meaning of a 15-minute conversation between Crenca and Ennis have mushroomed into a political controversy that is as baffling as it is bitter for Montgomery County politicians and civic officials.

The incident -- an alleged offer of money to influence a council member's vote -- has become a bizarre postscript to the Silver Spring redevelopment battle that was one of the most divisive issues facing the council in recent years.

The two women have a lot in common. Both are 61. Ennis is president of the Allied Civic Group, an eastern Montgomery alliance of civic groups that Crenca headed as its first female president. Both live in Silver Spring and care about its future. The Sept. 22 lunch was to talk about the controversial plan to open the community to major redevelopment.

Ennis, who is also a member of the Silver Spring-Takoma Traffic Coalition, bitterly opposed the plan. This point was well known to Crenca, then council president and an important swing vote. So the two sat in the sunny cafeteria of the council office building in Rockville and talked.

Crenca -- who voted six weeks after that lunch to lift development limits in Silver Spring in a vote that has enraged much of her natural civic constituency -- has said that Ennis offered her money to vote for a scaled-down version of redevelopment. Ennis has denied the charge, calling it "a bloody lie."

The county state's attorney office has said it will look into the incident to determine if there should be an investigation to see if bribery, punishable by a fine or up to 12 years in jail, was attempted.

"This has stunned us all," said Allen Bender, president of the county's largest citizens group, the Civic Federation. "I find it unbelievable that {Ennis} would have made an obvious bribe offer. I find it equally unbelievable that if it did not happen that Mrs. Crenca would say it happened."

There are many such improbabilities.

The setting, for instance: Montgomery County, with its reputation for good government, with very few political scandals in its past, and low-level scandals, at that. "In Baltimore city, that kind of comment is not even foreplay," joked one former state official of the alleged offer of money.

Or the players. Ennis plays the harp, teaches and describes herself as "somewhat flaky." She is, in the words of one civic activist, "politeness personified." When repeating a swear word in the course of relating a story, she hesitated and said "excuse me." Crenca is a politician who got her start as a civic activist in Silver Spring, a woman with a reputation for straightforwardness.

And there is the plot. "It is not what you would expect," said one development attorney of the charge that a civic activist would offer money for a vote. "It is sort of a 'man bites dog' story, from most people's biases."

Matching the contradictions are the questions. Foremost here is the timing. Why is the allegation only now emerging, almost three months after the incident?

Crenca, reiterating her claim that she did not want to make an issue of the matter, has said she told her story this week only when asked specifically by a reporter for the Montgomery Journal if she was offered money on the Silver Spring issue.

Crenca has said she did not leak information about the incident. Marilyn Piety, another former president of Allied Civic and a friend to Crenca, said yesterday that she told Journal reporter Matt Hamblen about the alleged incident. Piety, a county budget analyst, also on Nov. 30 told a Washington Post reporter.

"So what?," Piety asked. "I did what I thought was a minor thing. There's nothing illegal, nothing wrong . . . . People tell people things all the time."

Piety said she leaked the allegation about Ennis "because she {Crenca} felt strongly it ought to come out. She wanted it done." Piety added she wanted it made clear that she wouldn't do "something like that on my own."

Crenca denied that she initiated the process to disclose the allegations. She said that Piety told her "after the fact" that she had talked to the Post reporter. Crenca said that from time to time Piety had asked whether it would be bad if the information were publicized. Crenca said she did not specifically tell Piety not to say anything, but neither did she tell her to leak the information.

"It may have been a mistake to tell {Marilyn}," Crenca said Wednesday. But she said she was so upset when the incident occurred that Piety was one person she turned to for advice.

Crenca also turned to County Attorney Clyde H. Sorrell, a visit that raised the question of Crenca's and Sorrell's obligations as county officials to report the incident. Crenca said she believes her obligation was fulfilled when she consulted with Sorrell, and she said he told her it was her decision whether to publicize the matter. "I didn't {want to publicize it} so I thought that the end of it," she said.

Sorrell sees his conversation with Crenca as that of attorney and client. He advised her on her options and her personal liability if she said anything, but he said the attorney-client relationship prevented him from taking action on his own.

Several lawyers familiar with criminal prosecutions said the incident is so murky the state's attorney will be hard-pressed to find a precedent case.

"It's one person's word against another's," said one lawyer.

Most civic and government activists believe the incident resulted from a bad misunderstanding; that Ennis said something, perhaps not artfully, that she really didn't mean.

Ennis doesn't buy that theory. She believes that the allegation is being made now because of a Nov. 24 meeting that Allied Civic held in which there was harsh criticism of the council action in Silver Spring.

"It's a blow. Regardless of the outcome, it hurts," said Bender of the civic federation.