The Prince George's County Council is locked in a bitter dispute over who will become the next chairman and vice chairman of the nine-member body.

The decision to elect new leadership belongs to council members and is traditionally orchestrated behind the scenes and made official by a unanimous public vote.

But with the vote less than a week away, council members said a unanimous agreement is not likely to result this year out of a process that has been particularly divisive.

Council members are trying to balance race, gender, allegiances to the county executive, other political alliances and years of experience on the council as they try to line up votes for the one-year positions. The posts carry small increases over the current salaries--council members are paid $54,332, the vice chairman gets $55,332 and the chairman gets $56,832. And the jobs offer visibility and some ability to influence the council's agenda.

"We're starting to unravel," said council member Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden). Wilson is proposing that in the future, the voters--not the members themselves--should decide who becomes chairman.

Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills), who is closely aligned with County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), and Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) appear to have the five votes needed to become chairman and vice chairman, respectively. They are supported by Wilson, Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) and Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie). The vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

A minority of council members, including M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) would like to see Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) or Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) as chairman or vice chairman.

None of the three has served in a leadership position, which has raised the question of whether Bailey, who already has served as chairman and has been vice chairman twice since being elected to the council in 1994, should take a leadership position again.

Race and gender also are playing a role in the debate. The council has tried since 1995 to have both a white and a black member in the leadership positions and then trade off each year between a white chairman and a black chairman.

Estepp, the outgoing chairman, is white. Bailey, who is African American, is the vice chairman.

The selection process has been complicated by the fact that Wilson, who is black, has said he doesn't want to accept a leadership position. Gourdine, who also is black, has not been able to line up enough votes.

Wilson said he would rather concentrate on issues important to his district.

"I don't need to be out front," he said.

Shapiro said he was eager for a chance to serve.

"The most important thing for me is that we have competent leaders on the council," Shapiro said. "I do not think that the purpose of electing leaders is to make sure that everyone gets a turn at it."

Seven of the nine members will leave the council in 2002 because of voter-imposed restrictions prohibiting more than two consecutive four-year terms.

Winning a leadership position has additional appeal as some of the departing members, including Estepp, may be seeking exposure as they consider running for another political office.

"They want to step up and run for county executive, and that destroys our unity," Wilson said. "People are jockeying for leadership positions so they look good when they run for county executive."

Some council members also said that allegiances to Curry have played a role in the process.

Neither Maloney nor Gourdine is a predictable vote for Curry's agenda. The two are often on the losing side of 7 to 2 votes on the council, which some of their colleagues say is evidence that they will not be able to look at the big picture and represent the broader interests of the county if elected chairman.

On the other hand, Bailey is a fierce ally of Curry. They share a fund-raising slate. Shapiro is at odds with Curry over labor issues but is not seen as a Curry critic.

Russell said he supports Bailey as the new chairman.

"Being the chairman of the County Council is a privilege that you earn," he said. "If you happen to have it twice, it's an honor. It should be simply the best person, and that is determined by the council by a majority of the votes."

Maloney, who has expressed an interest in being chairman or vice chairman, said Curry has tried to influence the outcome by offering favors in exchange for votes--an allegation that Curry's lobbyist denies.

"I am surprised and disappointed that the county executive is trying to get into the picture," Maloney said. "He's got more than enough to do running his own shop. The county executive has overstepped his bounds."

Leonard L. Lucchi, Curry's lobbyist, said: "Absolutely not. It's a council issue."

Still, Gourdine said he is worried that a Bailey-Shapiro ticket would give Curry greater influence over legislative matters, whether the executive pushed for them or not.

"When we have people representing the county executive's concerns, he can call the shots," Gourdine said. "He can offer favors to get votes. He can hold projects up. But the county executive shouldn't have any say."

Hendershot echoed concerns that Curry would gain greater power if Bailey and Shapiro are elected to the leadership posts.

"I believe the council needs to be a policy institution in its own right," he said. "It's fairly difficult to develop that kind of position if it's perceived that the leadership will do merely what the executive tells them."

CAPTION: Peter A. Shapiro wants the vice chairmanship.

CAPTION: Dorothy F. Bailey has been chairman before.