WITH THE exception of District government officials, sellers of goods and services to the city and certain members of the D.C. Council, procurement doesn't ring a bell in the city. But it is critical to the successful operation of a multibillion dollar enterprise such as the D.C. government. The procurement program is trouble, and its leader, Richard Fite, is the man in the middle.

Apparently Mr. Fite has been asked by Mayor Anthony Williams to leave his post. Under the law that created his job, the office has a fixed term. Consequently, Mr. Fite, who was nominated by then-Mayor Marion Barry and confirmed by the council for a term expiring in 2002, does not serve at the pleasure of the mayor. No matter, says city hall. The mayor wants him gone, and Mr. Fite reportedly has told some associates he's leaving.

Mr. Fite's impending departure is a cause of outrage and joy, depending on the audience. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) has worked closely with him and thinks he's brought "progress and professionalism" to the job. She wants him to stay, as does the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Washington Council of Agencies.

But the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, chaired by Maudine Cooper, considers Mr. Fite's procurement system to be an administrative nightmare. In testimony before House and Senate subcommittees, Mrs. Cooper said the program "lacks responsiveness." A "bureaucratic-convoluted paradigm," she called it, saying it is "characterized by indifference and neglect." The public schools are being held hostage to the procurement program, she said: "We cannot timely purchase such fundamental items as computers and textbooks." Other city agencies are said to have lodged similar complaints.

The mayor's acting city administrator, Norman Dong, suggested that the mayor, confronted with conflicting readings on Mr. Fite, came down on the side of city agencies. "If we are not delivering, the mayor will make changes. It all comes back to performance and accountability." So with Mr. Fite soon out of the picture, the onus for procurement reform, as with so much else these days, will rest on the mayor's shoulders. Can he handle this, too?