IN A CHARACTERISTIC display of City Hall's current ability to think things through, Mayor Washington is now saying he hasn't really seen anything that would prevent him from reinstating Joseph P. Yeldell as director of the Department of Human Resources. What Mr. Washington presumably means is that he hasn't seen any proof that Mr. Yeldell has committed any crimes or gross improprieties. And so, Mr. Washington apparently cannot see any reason not to return to Mr. Yeldell's care all those people who must to look to the DHR for help. We have particularly in mind those people who looked for help and didn't get it over those five deplorable years when Mr. Yeldell was directing - or misdirecting - the destinies of Forest Haven and D.C. General Hospital and all the other troubled corners of the overblown DHR bureaucracy. Mr. Yeldell's generally miserable performance as an administrator is reason enough, in our view, for not returning him to the DHR.

But there is enough reason that has also apparently escaped the notice of the mayor - and here we find ourselves torn between a certain obligation to be responsible in this matter and a powerful temptation to sit back and see just what might happen if Mr. Yeldell did reassume directorship of DHR. What then might happen would be that he would wind up in jail. For if he returns to his old job, he would once again be obliged to asume his responsibility in the longstanding court case having to do with the department's scandalous handling of welfare applications. As you may recall, U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson has been insisting for many moons that DHR process these applications within the legal time limits. And for just as long, DHR has failed to comply. Judge Robinson (who happens to be one of several judges whose patience has been challenged by the city government's failure to comply with court orders) has found the mayor and DHR officials in contempt of court.

The judge is now threatening to jail all responsible officials if the welf-application backlog isn't cleaned up right away. But since Mr. Yeldell has been detailed to other duties, he's apparently immune from such punishment. "As far as Mr. Yeldell is coincerned," says Judge Robinson, "he is out of it for the moment . . . but if he comes back, he's in the soup again."

IN the soup . As we said, it's tempting. The trouble is, of course, that not just Mr. Yeldell (and, conceivably, the mayor himself) would be in the soup. So would all the unfortunate people who depend on the services that DHR is supposed to be delivering. And that is too big a price to pay. So we would keep this particular potion of D.C. government out of Mr. Yeldell's reach. The case for his removal as DHR director was made long before any of the charges of illegalities ever arose. To bring him back would be to reward administrative incompetence and financial waste at the expense of those in urgent and continuing need of help from the DHR.