Walter A. Scheiber, whom many area officials credit with turning the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments into an effective forum for solving regional problems, announced yesterday that he will retire as the organization's executive director.

Scheiber, 68, who has been in the position for nearly 25 years, will leave COG in January. A 10-member panel of the organization's board members soon will begin a national search for a successor.

When Scheiber went to COG in 1966, "regional government was a dirty word," said Arlington County Board member Ellen M. Bozman, a former chairman of the COG board.

Scheiber helped change that by using a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach that encouraged area officials to use COG -- whose board is made up of elected officials from each jurisdiction in the Washington area -- to iron out differences and pool resources in getting more federal money for transportation, housing and other programs.

"He has made sure that elected officials throughout the region recognize that it is a good place to discuss regional issues," Bozman said. Scheiber's tenure "has been the period in which COG has become a force in the community."

Though not a self-promoter, Scheiber is viewed by area officials as having been a driving force behind numerous programs that enhanced COG's reputation.

He helped to develop a new formula for allocating federal housing funds to ensure more money would go to Montgomery and Fairfax counties. He also was a key player in the cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and helped to devise programs through which local governments could jointly buy goods to save money and augment each other's police and fire departments in emergencies.

Local officials also say Scheiber's efforts through COG helped the region receive millions more dollars from Congress for construction of the Metro system than it otherwise might have.

"He's one of the most dedicated public servants I know," said R. Robert Linowes, a Silver Spring zoning lawyer who went to law school with Scheiber at Columbia University. "His commitment to Metro kept that moving along . . . . A lot of the cooperation you see between the governments in this region today wouldn't have happened without Walt there to promote it and nurture it."

Scheiber, who is paid $107,000 a year, said that when he began at COG, "nobody really knew what regional government was about."

"So many local leaders had apprehensions about working together, they didn't want it known they would support something like that," Scheiber said. "Some people were so afraid of it they thought it was a communist plot . . . . I guess we've come a long way since then."