When Elijah B. Rogers became city manager of Berkeley, Calif., in 1976 some department heads were habitually late in arriving at work. Rogers, so the story goes, would station himself outside their office doors at 8 a.m., the official start of the work day, watch in hand.

"Any time will do," he would say, looking at the watch as the surprised bureaucrat straggled into work 10 or 15 minutes late. Rogers made his point, according to Berkely city hall observers.

"The deadwood in Washington better look out," said Henry Pancoast, a member of a Berkeley advisory commission on transportation. "There's a lumberman coming."

Rogers, a 39-year-old fast-talking, brusque and at times abrasive former social worker, is District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry's city administrator-designate. He will be the field commander in Barry's quest to seize control of the assortment of independent-minded and often inefficient agencies of the D.C. government.

Like the new mayor, Rogers is a former social activist who went into city hall after he grew tired of fighting it. He is a stickler for punctuality, a workaholic, a fiscal conservative and a man with a good feel for politics -- he regularly plays tennis with the Berkeley City Council member regarded as one of Rogers' staunchest public critics.

That critic is John Henry Denton, who said of Rogers' tennis game, "He tries to put too much English on the ball."

Rogers cut his teeth in city administration in 1970 -- about the same time Barry entered elective politics -- by working in Bowie, Md., as an assistant to then city manager A. Louis Hayward. From there he went to Richmond, where he was an assistant city administrator, before going to Berkeley in 1974.

Berkeley has a population smaller than that of Southeast Washington, fewer city employes in the entire city government than there are in the D.C. Fire Department and an annual budget one-sixth as large as that of the D.C. Department of Human Resources.

Still, most of more than a dozen past and present associates of Rogers characterized him as an extremely competitive bureaucrat and governmental team player who should have little trouble adjusting to his new job as director of the $2 billion a year District of Columbia government. And Rogers pretty much agreed.

"The basic management principles are the same, whether you have a million people or you have two. Once you get good people, it's a simple question of monitoring how the job is getting done," Rogers said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I'm not the kind of person who's gonna sit around and watch the city government being criticized," he said. "My whole style and philosophy is that as blacks we are competent, we can manage effectively and we will manage effectively."

Rogers will also bring a new style and personality to the post formerly held by the reclusive, conservatively dressed and often aloof Julian R. Dugas.

Rogers drives a silver Alfa Romeo and is fond of monogrammed silk shirts and finely tailored suit. He plays tennis on weekends, backgammon on occasions and wears a silver bracelet inscribed with his middle name -- Baby.

"My mother loved me," said Rogers, the youngest of five children in his family, explaining the middle name.

Barry is scheduled to formally introduce Rogers and Robert L. Moore, the new director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, to reporters today. Rogers is to begin work here no later than March 5.

Rogers is not a newcomer to the District. He graduated from Howard University in 1967 with a master's degree in social work. He then worked for the South Carolina Department of Corerctions for two years before he returned here in 1969 to work with the National Urban League's "New Thrust" program headed by former D.C. City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker.

After leaving the Urban League, Rogers entered a special minorities program in city management run jointly by Howard University and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He received a master's degree in urban administration from Howard in 1972.

Rogers went to Berkeley as an assistant city manager in July 1974. On June 8, 1976, after the nine-person City Council fired the man who hired him, Rogers became the new city manager of Berkeley. Under terms of a controversial contract signed in 1977, Rogers' current salary is $52,000 a year -- $2,000 less than what he will make as D.C. city administrator.

In Berkeley, a college-dominated town on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, Rogers inherited a government renowned for laxity, low morale and high taxes.

"He took the city staff by storm," said Berkeley's acting personnel director, Lenore Griffin, Rogers popped up at department meetings. He did not hesitate to interrupt and ask questions. He showed "a true interest at every level," she said.

Rogers encouraged pot-luck retirement parties and employe birthday celebrations that he often attended. "There was always a sense that you could kid around with him," recalled former recreation department employe Arlene Silk, who was sometimes a critic of Rogers. "Except you always knew he was the boss."

Unlike his predecessor, Rogers knew his place as city manager, and seldom made statements that his nine employers -- the City Council -- felt upstaged their own positions, observers said.

His first budget led to Berkeley's first property tax rate reduction in nearly a decade. But those actions and his responses to the passage last year of Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes in the entire state of California, have drawn criticism from some in Berkeley's highly active network of citizen's groups.

After Rogers denied an increase in staff for a proposed senior citizens recreation center, Clarence Bailey, longtime spokesman in Berkeley's black community -- which makes up one-third of the city's population -- became critical. 'All of his decisions were made in terms of dollars and cents," Bailey said in an interview.

"His belief (is) that fiscal management is the major goal of the city," said Silk, who watched as the city recreation department, in which she worked, fell victim to Rogers' budgetcutting ax and was reorganized out of existence.

"I don't feel fiscal conservatism is a major goal," Rogers responded in the interview yesterday. "But you cannot administer or run a program unless you take a good hard look at how you're spending the public's dollars. I just don't believe in throwing the public's dollars away."

The five-person council majority headed by Rogers' principal boss, Mayor Warren Widener, is considered liberal -- but decidedly to the right -- of the council minority in the generally leftist poitics of Berkeley. It is the minority, headed by Council member Ilona Hancock, that is supported by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), who is in line to become the next chairman of the House District Committee.

Hancock said in an interview that Rogers has shown "a lack of real aggression in implementing certain initiative measures that were approved by voters and opposed by the council majority."

There has also been some criticism during the past year of the quality of care in some city parks and allegations of poorly maintained streets. But many community representatives place the blame for that on more than 10 years of inadequate funding by the City Council instead of Rogers' administration.

The District's 44,000-worker bureaucracy will probably be too large for the close personal contact of his "all-in-the-family" Berkely style, Rogers concedes.

"One of the first things we're gonna have to do is get a grip on the city, get people to unlearn bad habits, instill pride and get back to the basic kinds of attitudes about work and productivity," he said.

Rogers expects to rely heavily on the staff of five assistant city administrators assembled by Barry to help police and manage the District bureaucracy.

Rogers is generally considered accessible and willing to listen to citizens groups, but Washington will be a new, larger and perhaps politically more complex and conservative town.

"His biggest problem," said Washington Urban League President John E. Jacob, 'is going to be understanding the actions and the cast of characters throughout the community and who are the people who must be initially included in putting together his strategies."

Rogers will also be a newcomer to the inner circle of top Barry aides, many of whom have labored together in different areas over the years. "Baby Rogers will have a problem establishing himself as a creditable manager," Jacob said, "given the assistants he has who already know Marion."