Dr. Maxine Savitz may have won a small victory Friday in her fight to regain her job as the government's top expert on energy conservation, but the skirmish in the administration is far from over.

K. William O'Connor, special counsel to the Merit Systems Protection Board, said last week that the Energy Department acted improperly last year when it fired Savitz. In a letter delivered late last week to Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel, O'Connor recommended that she be reinstated immediately as deputy assistant secretary of energy for conservation or to a similar high-level position.

"We have . . . clearly identified violations of the merit system," O'Connor warned Hodel, who was given 30 days to reply. If Hodel does not adopt O'Connor's recommendations, the special counsel said he will ask the merit board to intervene.

O'Connor's action was criticized immediately by Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management, who said Friday that he would advise Hodel to ignore O'Connor's recommendations.

"His actions fly in the face of the law," Devine said. "It's the strangest thing I've ever seen in this area." Devine said O'Connor's actions were "strange" because the MSPB voted in January not to extend a stay on Savitz's firing.

This is not the first time O'Connor and OPM have tangled. Last year, O'Connor asked the MSPB to delay the firing of 19 Senior Executive Service career employes at the Energy Department. OPM intervened, told O'Connor that it was investigating the dismissals and that its investigation had precedent over his. Devine said that probe still is under way.

Savitz, who had worked for the government 15 years and had received numerous awards, was fired last October by Joseph J. Tribble, assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy, after she refused to report to a new job in Colorado.

At the time, Savitz described the transfer as "nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to force me off the rolls." She said Tribble knew that she would not move because her husband, Alan, works in Washington and they have two children in high school here.

The board stayed Savitz's firing twice so O'Connor could investigate. But on Jan. 10, it rejected O'Connor's request for a third delay. The board said it denied that stay because Savitz admitted that she did not tell Tribble beforehand that she would not accept a transfer even though they had talked about the possibility. Savitz officially was dismissed the next day.

Devine said the board's decision to reject the stay, in effect, "took O'Connor out of it."

O'Connor disagrees. In his letter to Hodel, he said the board's decision made him drop his investigation into whether personnel rules were violated by using a transfer to get an employe to resign or be fired. But, he said, his probe had turned up two other violations. Because Savitz had received a satisfactory job performance rating, the agency was required to transfer her to a similar or better job if it asked her to move, he said.

The job that Tribble had created for Savitz in Colorado was a demotion, O'Connor said.

The agency also was transferring Savitz for "reasons unrelated to her job performance," O'Connor said in his report. He also said the agency should pay Savitz's attorney's fees, destroy personnel records related to her dismissal and rescind the order transferring her to Colorado.

In Savitz's performance rating for Sept. 9, 1982, Tribble wrote, "A change to relaxed regulation, severely reduced budgets and a conservation program driven by market forces is a change she has, in my opinion, been unwilling or unable to make."

In response, Savitz provided "extensive documentation" that showed she had never contradicted or challenged Tribble in public.