NOW THE scramble of petitioners seeking drastic change in the government structure of Fairfax County -- a movement born of Great Falls homeowners who don't like the price tags and taxing on their considerable properties -- has shifted from the doorsteps and shopping malls to the courthouse, still in search of a referendum. At issue is whether the group has filed enough valid signatures in time to force a special election on its plan this summer. The county registrar determined last week that the drive fell 778 signatures short of the number needed to compel a special election. But petitioners are trying to review the more than 8,000 disallowed signatures in hopes of finding enough mistakes to take their effort over the top. If they do, the county may well have to spend money for a special election that is becoming less special by the month as next year's regular elections loom closer.

What confuses things even more is that the petition drive was sold as a way of putting a ceiling on increases in real estate taxes, but the referendum would be on a proposal to change the county's urban county executive government to a county manager style of government, the objective being to unseat the board of supervisors in a separate election in November -- a year before the board's four-year terms expire. There is debate as to whether legally these terms can be shortened by such a change, but the questions voters need to ask is why they should turn the government upside down in the first place when anyone who doesn't like what the supervisors are doing can so state in next year's board elections.

The not-so-subtle thinking behind the special election idea is that an off-season referendum billed as a tax-cutting effort would bring out the challengers in force but perhaps not those who know better and who would be more likely to show up at a regular election and reject the plan. But even if this back-door effort manages to force a summer vote, voters should make it a point to be counted in favor of the traditional orderly and responsive way of voting for or against county officeholders.