The thick file of letters complaining to the County Board is a monument to the way Arlington government works.

From a Ballston resident's 25-page dissertation about why the board should reject a developer's plans there to a complaint from a North Arlington man about dogs stealing his cat's food dish, each grievance is answered with a polite letter, usually from one of the five County Board members.

Whether as pen pals of county officials or members of the 55 citizen committees that oversee everything from cable television to historic landmarks, Arlingtonians enjoy a tradition of participatory democracy and consensus-building so hallowed that it has a name:

The Arlington Way.

"Sometimes things take a little longer here than some other places," said County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg. "But we would rather have it properly cooked and easily digestible than have it turn out half-baked . . . . I think we have a good product here. It's something that we can be proud of."

But now the Arlington Way is showing signs of strain. Plans for a 68-bed drug treatment facility and shelter for the homeless have some residents so angry they say a decades-old trust in county government is being eroded.

A County Board election campaign has heightened the tension, with Republican-backed independent A.M. "Monte" Davis attacking Democratic incumbent Mary Margaret Whipple for not opposing the treatment center. Davis also has complained that Democrats -- who control all 15 of the county's elected offices, including the five-member County Board -- have created a closed-door government that is unresponsive to residents.

Although most Democrats and some community activists view the treatment center brouhaha as politically inspired, some agree that the Arlington Way has seen better days.

"When I think of the Arlington Way, I think of a government that listened to its people and responded to its concerns," said Mary Dabinett, a South Arlington civic leader opposed to a plan to put the treatment facility near Columbia Pike and Washington Boulevard. "On this particular thing, everybody has seen the Arlington Way fall to pieces."

That is a serious accusation in a county where longtime residents fondly recall how during the 1950s a group of government workers first wrested control of schools from a segregationist School Board and then mounted a successful assault on the County Board itself.

The activists, some of whom are still members of a group called Arlingtonians for a Better County, were convinced that good government was grass-roots government built on citizen participation.

"It's . . . been a principle in Arlington for a long time," said Ellen M. Bozman, a County Board member since 1974.

In spite of the sometimes painstaking pace of Arlington's consensus-building government, past elections indicate that most residents have been satisfied with the outcome.

Democrats have controlled the County Board for eight years, usually winning elections by wide margins. The current board, which selects a new chairman each year, often has solidified its power by giving the chairmanship to members a year or two before they are up for reelection. Board member William T. Newman Jr., next year's likely chairman, is up for reelection next year along with Eisenberg.

Most county leaders believe that election-year politics are responsible for much of the frenzied opposition to the treatment center.

They say Davis is using the treatment center plan to try to drum up support in her campaign.

Whipple has raised about $4,000 less than Davis's $53,331 but still is favored to win a third term. County Democrats acknowledge they are nervous about whether anger over the treatment center will play a major role in the election.

Much of that anger began in April, when County Manager Anton S. Gardner proposed a facility in South Arlington for low-risk inmates, the homeless and drug addicts without first presenting it to civic leaders and neighborhood groups. He said the county needed to move quickly because of Arlington's crowded jail.

Although the corrections part of the proposal has been dropped and Gardner has appointed a citizen committee to come up with a new plan, the anger persists.

In keeping with the Arlington Way, the panel has met nearly every week since July, and is studying a new staff proposal to put the center near Columbia Pike and Washington Boulevard. But South Arlington residents opposed to the center have accused the panel of adding to the anxiety, and last week some called for an outside mediator.

Gardner said he believes much of the uproar stems from a lack of understanding of the plan.

"What's going on here also is a symptom of what is happening nationally," Gardner said. "People are feeling pressured by the economic downturn and a host of other issues . . . and they're turning inward."

Others expect the controversy to be ironed out the Arlington Way.

"I see a lot of smoke, but I don't think there's much fire," said Arlington Treasurer Francis X. O'Leary Jr., a Democrat. "If anything, all that has taken place has proven that the system works. I think the Arlington Way is alive and well."