THE NEXT D.C. Council, under the leadership of a new chairman, John Wilson, is expected to achieve an unprecedented co-equal status with the city's next mayor. For this to work well, the council will have to show independence and creativity, and judiciously wield the authority it has to conduct a more vigorous and aggressive surveillance of the local governmental machinery. Critical to the council's (and therefore the city's) future success will be the choice voters make for the two at-large council seats. In 15 years of local self-government, there has never been a greater demand for mature, stable and responsible members to serve on that body -- public officials who can command the respect of the citizens of this city and, through the character and quality of their service, help restore the District's stature around the country.

Fortunately, the voters' choice is made easier by the presence of two first-rate candidates in this race: Linda Cropp and Hilda Mason. Both have the personal qualities, professional qualifications and experience necessary to bring the council to the prominence it deserves as a governing body. You get two votes for council member at large. Vote Cropp and Mason.

Mrs. Mason, completing her third term on the council, has a well-deserved reputation as a thoughtful and seasoned stateswoman on the council. As a former public-school teacher and administrator and school board member, she has concentrated much of her energy where it counts: on the city's educational needs, better drug prevention and treatment programs and a stepped-up neighborhood police presence. Throughout her long public career, and despite a calm demeanor, Mrs. Mason, has never been afraid to make the tough calls. As a school board member, she played a key role in the necessary firing of Barbara Sizemore as school superintendent when many shirked the task. It was Hilda Mason, as chairman of the council's education committee, who pressed for the official inquiry which disclosed the spending irregularities of former UDC president Robert L. Green -- who later resigned under fire. She's been a vocal and frequent critic of Mayor Barry's appointments to the UDC board of trustees. Her counsel should prove invaluable to the incoming mayor and council chairman.

Linda Cropp will bring to the council a style of leadership and set of skills that served her well during 10 often turbulent years on the school board. While board president for two years, Mrs. Cropp had to hold together a rancorous board, help pick a superintendent, attract a top-flight group of business, religious and academic leaders to study the school system and keep the peace at the same time. She managed to do most of that, earning plaudits from several board members and the public. The council will benefit from having in its ranks a consensus builder and service-oriented public official whose cautious style and broad base of support throughout the city should make her one of the council's most valued members. Democratic voters apparently agreed with this assessment, given her primary victory, which should be repeated next week.

The rest of the field is mixed. Jim Harvey could serve on the council with distinction and should not have passed up the chance to run for the Ward 1 seat out of friendship to the incumbent and his former boss, Frank Smith. Both Ward 1 and the city would have gained from his service on the council. Ray Browne and Clarene Martin likewise have demonstrated through their campaigns and past civic activities that they have much to offer this city. They should continue their pursuit of public office, whether elected or appointive.

The most unfortunate aspect of this race of course is the presence -- the spectacle -- of convicted Mayor Marion Barry Jr. Despite his rejection by members of the council -- who don't want him as a colleague -- and Jesse Jackson -- who prefers his opponent -- and with a six-month jail sentence for drug use staring him in the face, Mr. Barry still runs, ignoring even the advice of some of his closest friends. For the city's sake as well as for his own, Mr. Barry should not be allowed to play the spoiler's role in the government about to be elected.

But the at-large race is about more than this. It is about Washington's chance to have a council that lives up to its potential. Mrs. Mason and Mrs. Cropp will help that happen.