Frederick A. Babson Jr. wasn't chairman for long. He quit after two years as the first elected leader of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, telling friends the only real power he had was wielding the gavel at meetings.

Thirty years later, the top elected official of a suburb with nearly a million people still has less formal authority than many small-town mayors.

Power in Fairfax County is a shared affair. Decisions are made by a hired county executive, by elected supervisors who oversee their districts a bit in the way mayors run cities and by hundreds of advisory committees and commissions that study everything from aging to zoning.

It's a system that some officials and civic leaders say Fairfax can no longer afford. Neither the chairman nor the county executive has both the mandate and the responsibility to lead, they complain, which means that too often nobody does.

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) believes the answer is for Fairfax to elect a county executive so someone is clearly in charge, the way Montgomery and Prince George's counties do. Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and others argue that a better solution is to give more authority to the board chairman, the only official elected by all of Fairfax County's residents.

"There's a tendency to defer to committees, to punt on big issues, to not have anybody take a stand and enunciate a position and try to lead," Frey said of the current setup. "To the extent that you want a reactive government, that might be right. A problem arises, government reacts and a problem gets solved. In terms of proactively leading change, I don't think it works very well."

Last week, the Democrat-controlled board hired Anthony H. Griffin, a career bureaucrat, as the new county executive, calling him the right man to reform the government. Frey said those comments by board members reflect the problem.

"I find it ironic that we're looking to the head bureaucrat for vision," Frey said. "It seems to me we're looking for vision in the wrong place."

Defenders of the system in Fairfax, among them Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) and other supervisors, disagree. They point to the county's top-ranked school system, low crime rate and booming economy, and they ask, Just what is broken that needs fixing?

"Our form of government has produced a quality of life that is the envy of most jurisdictions across America," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "We don't have a focal point in the form of an elected county executive or a mayor. But I would argue that we are more efficient."

Some business leaders, current and former supervisors and others say the lack of a built-in system of strong leadership has contributed to sometimes rudderless decision-making in such areas as school funding, development and county finances.

In addition, some critics say, the size of Fairfax's bureaucracy, almost 11,000 employees strong, has never been challenged effectively because no leader exists to take it on.

And they predict even more difficulty ahead as Fairfax strives to face down complex new challenges: halting the decay of older communities as the county matures; paying for services demanded by an aging and more diverse population; and solving vexing traffic congestion.

"It will become increasingly more important as we respond to urban concerns--everything from transportation to revitalization," Kauffman said.

Former school superintendent Robert R. "Bud" Spillane said the government's structure discourages the decisive leadership that may be needed to address the difficult issues of the next generation.

"Collaborative leadership will be the weakest, mushiest leadership in most cases," he said. "It's both a criticism and a weakness. The truth of the matter is those decisions are always weaker ones. They try to please everyone and they please no one."

The Chief Sheep Dog

As she strode to the microphone one day last month, Fairfax's Chairman Hanley was flanked by the elected county executives of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and by the mayor of the District of Columbia.

The occasion was the fourth meeting of a group that has come to be known as "The Big Four." Watching Hanley brief reporters that day, it would be easy to assume she wielded the same authority as the others.

She does not.

Douglas M. Duncan, of Montgomery, Wayne K. Curry, of Prince George's, and Anthony A. Williams, of the District, all craft and present their own budgets; they hire and fire top managers; and each can unilaterally order action by the bureaucracy.

In Fairfax, such power is reserved for the appointed executive, who serves at the board's pleasure. The executive hires most top managers, but only with the consent of a board majority, and only the board can fire them.

"Most people look at the chair as a mayor," Kauffman said. "The bigger we get, the more complicated the issues . . . the more the man or woman who is chair needs to have the ability to get things done."

Hanley can, and often does, urge action by county staff members, but her directives carry no formal authority. In that way, she is no more in charge than any of the nine other supervisors, elected by district.

Hanley is a former schoolteacher who rarely uses the bully pulpit to engage an issue and frequently says one of her chief goals is to avoid "committing news" when she speaks.

But she does have some informal power. As the only supervisor elected countywide, Hanley's opinions sometimes carry greater weight during debates. She often calls herself the "chief sheep dog," and colleagues, including Republicans, say Hanley can be an effective behind-the-scenes cajoler who often builds a majority for her goals. Hanley has prodded the board to approve more money for schools, for an environmental coordinator and for initiatives to curb youth violence.

"I have the responsibility to provide a climate, a mechanism through which the board can come to consensus," Hanley said. "To keep everybody rounded up. To provide a mechanism by which the board can make decisions and avoid cataclysms."

But the question for some has become: Who's really in charge?

In some years, the answer has been Fairfax's hired county executive, but people attribute that more to an executive's forceful personality than any formal authority. Former county executive J. Hamilton Lambert, for example, is widely credited with accelerating the county's rapid commercial development during the 1980s.

There is no one in Fairfax with the kind of official clout that Curry has--power that gave him the authority to negotiate directly with the Cooke family over the Washington Redskins' stadium, for instance.

The district supervisors--sometimes referred to as the "nine mayors"--certainly have authority, but their influence tends to be limited to their own districts.

By tradition, the board lets each district supervisor make decisions on zoning requests in his or her area--authorizing strip malls and housing developments.

"Everyone knows who to go to in Providence District," said Connolly (D). "I'm the mayor of a fairly large town."

Then there are hundreds of citizen committees that shape policy.

This month, faced with increasing conflict when developments are proposed in well-established neighborhoods, the supervisors did what they often do: They created a committee and asked for a report in 18 months.

New rules for protecting trees from development were hammered out by another ad hoc group of residents and developers. Proposals for merit pay for county workers have been studied by a task force for more than a year.

"It's like death by committee," Frey complained.

Connolly said he believes Frey is motivated by political pique. Frey decided against challenging Hanley in November because he considered her unbeatable. And Connolly said Frey was stung by the loss of GOP power in that election. With the defeat of two-term GOP Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (Hunter Mill), the Democrats will have a 7 to 3 majority in January.

"What he's criticizing is the messiness of public participation," Connolly said of Frey. "I'm proud of that. It may be messier and it may take longer, but we tend to achieve public consensus and support for the measures we pursue."

Connolly also rejected the criticism that Fairfax has allowed hodgepodge development or failed to shrink the bureaucracy. For example, in 1996, he said, supervisors slashed the size of the government in response to a budget crisis.

Hanley agrees. Decisions based on committee recommendations are more likely to be accepted by the community, she said.

"I would argue that a collaborative process ends up with better decisions than a combative process," Hanley said.

And Hanley said Fairfax's system quietly gets things done while its neighbors squabble.

Last year, for example, the Montgomery County Council debated a Duncan proposal to spend $1.1 million for an "e-Montgomery" system that would allow residents to pay taxes and fees over the Internet.

Five months later, the proposal was effectively killed after the council refused to allocate money Duncan had requested. Meanwhile, with little fanfare, Fairfax already has such a system.

Although a change might increase her power, Hanley opposes it. "The proof is in the pudding," she said. "The form of government that Fairfax County has seems to be working very well."

A Vision for Fairfax

Proponents of change say Hanley--and other chairmen before her--have failed to present a clear vision of the county's goals and strategies.

"Certainly this system gives aid and comfort to those without vision, because when the government is led by a committee, it is easy to duck and not take a leadership position," said Christopher Bright, a local historian and a former aide to U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R), himself a former chairman of the supervisors.

Todd Stottlemyer, a high-tech executive who considered running for board chairman last year, said, "I think it would make a lot of sense to have a stronger chairman, not just by personality, but by job description."

Eight years ago, a commission recommended against an elected county executive in Fairfax. But it did urge that the board chairman be given broad powers to propose a budget and to hire and fire the county executive and senior managers at will. The recommendations languished.

In Montgomery County, the change was made. Officials there abandoned the Fairfax style of government in 1968. Since then, the political debate has often been sharper and the issues broader. In the past year, County Executive Duncan and the council have wrestled over a living-wage bill, the most restrictive smoking ban in the country and a first-of-its-kind local income tax credit for poor families.

Gail Ewing, a former Montgomery council member who teaches political science, said electing a county executive and a council can create a combative atmosphere: "You have all-out war and battle after battle instead of doing the people's business."

But she also sees advantages in having an elected executive to push county legislators.

"If you don't have a counterbalance--somebody like a county executive, who is constantly trying to cut through and give some sense of imminent need--it's hard not to get bogged down in paralysis by analysis," Ewing said.

CAPTION: Katherine K. Hanley builds consensus as the supervisors' chairman.

CAPTION: Anthony H. Griffin, Fairfax County's newly appointed manager, serves at the Board of Supervisors' pleasure. He can hire officials but cannot fire them.