A new political era in the District is set to begin Jan. 2, at high noon. Or is it 10 a.m.?

Once this question was the least of anyone's worries on an Inauguration Day. The mayor-elect chose a time to be sworn in, and D.C. Council members humbly waited in line for their turns. But come Jan. 2, the line forms behind the council's next chairman, John A. Wilson.

In a move that has Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon's camp hardly thrilled, Wilson has scheduled his and other council members' inaugurations two hours before hers. And for the first time they won't even be sharing the same stage.

With the city struggling with a budget crisis and a record homicide rate, the inaugural squabble isn't keeping anyone awake at night, but it seems to be Wilson's latest hint that the new council doesn't intend to stand much in the shadow of the next mayor.

"This is part of Wilson's vision for the council to be more independent," a veteran council aide said yesterday. "He doesn't want to be an afterthought to the mayor, which is how past inaugurals have been."

Wilson could not be reached for comment yesterday.

After a few weeks of quiet bickering and schedule juggling, here's the latest plan: Wilson and two incoming council members, Linda Cropp (D-At Large) and Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6), will be sworn in at 10 a.m. in the council chamber. Dixon has been invited.

Two hours later, on the steps of the District Building, flanked by the award-winning Eastern High School choir, Dixon will take the oath of office. Wilson and his colleagues have been invited.

The two sides also have separate receptions planned, but for most of the day they will be together, first at a prayer breakfast at Ballou High School in Southeast, then in a parade that begins at 14th and U streets NW. The day will conclude with a ball at Union Station.

Dixon's inauguration, expected to cost about $500,000, will be far less elaborate than Mayor Marion Barry's festivities in 1987, which lasted four days.

The most lavish part of Dixon's day is her black-tie ball, with tickets costing $50 a person and $25 for seniors. For those who want to sit above the crowd -- and 20,000 invitations have been mailed -- there are box-seat booths that range from $1,500 to $10,000.

Those events are being organized smoothly, but Dixon aides seem puzzled by Wilson's insistence on the council having its own swearing-in ceremony. Still, they remain diplomatic.

"It's a new day for the city, so I guess the council just wanted to do things differently this time," Sonya Sims, a Dixon spokeswoman, said yesterday. "I think they felt overshadowed in the past and this is apparently a way for them to show that they're separate but equal. We don't mind."

They could have expected as much. Wilson, a 16-year council veteran who represents Ward 2, was elected council chairman this fall with nearly 90 percent of the vote.

His chief campaign pledge was to expand the power and prestige of the 13-member council, which many political observers have criticized as often being a rubber stamp for Barry.

"I'm not exactly sure why there are two swearing-in ceremonies, but the concern I've heard is that in the past it's only been the mayor's inauguration," Cropp said. "This is a first, and I think it has something to do with the new leadership on the council."