Arlington Sheriff James A. Gondles Jr. said last night that he had given nine deputies who signed a statement criticizing him and supporting his opponent in the November election the option of being demoted to his department's lowest rank or being fired.

"This is a way for me to say that the administration of my office is a team and you've got to be a team player," said Gondles. He said that four of the deputies are management-level staff and that the rest hold "positions of confidence."

Gondles, who as sheriff is given wide discretion in the execution of his office by the Virginia Constitution, gave letters expressing his lack of confidence to each of the nine during separate 15-minute meetings with them yesterday.

Deputies interviewed last night said that during the meeting the sheriff accused them of no specific act of disloyalty or poor performance. They said they knew of at least six other deputies scheduled for similar interviews today.

"I'm appalled at what this man is doing to me," said one deputy, who asked not to be identified. "Obviously there are no bygones."

The deputies, most of whom were hired by Gondles, have been given the option of being demoted to the position of correctional officer, the lowest rank, or being fired. They have until 5 p.m. tomorrow to sign a voluntary demotion statement. Those who do not will be off the job as of Thursday.

Gondles said that the deputies will retain their current pay but that certain benefits, such as life insurance, will be adversely affected if they are demoted. Arlington sheriff's deputies, like those in many other jurisdictions, run the jail, provide courtroom security and serve civil warrants. In the letters Gondles gave to the nine deputies yesterday, he wrote, ". . . Your actions in the campaign have clearly demonstrated your lack of confidence in my administration and your sharp disagreement with existing policies . . . . I no longer have confidence in your ability to be a part of my management team, or in your willingness to support wholeheartedly my policies and to carry them out without hestitation or disruption, or in our ability to maintain the close working relationship so crucial to the daily operations of this office."

Thomas D. Pearson Jr., an attorney representing some of the deputies, said last night he planned to go to federal court tomorrow to request an injunction halting any demotions or dismissals.

"The real issue here is that they're being denied their constitutional right to participate in a political process," said Pearson.

Shortly after he was elected to a third term with 54 percent of the vote in November, Gondles, a Democrat, said he was considering some action against 21 deputies who signed their names to a published endorsement of independent challenger Ronald Hager. The statement criticized Gondles for perceived mismanagement and "abuse of power."

Hager was Gondles' chief deputy before resigning to run for the office. At least three of the 21 deputies who signed the statement have left the department.

The heated tenor of the campaign was viewed as an aberration in Arlington, where elected officials are known for their cordiality. Gondles' intention to take action against his political opponents has also been criticized.

William Gearhart, president of the Arlington Civic Association, a federation of the county's 50 neighborhood associations, said last night he was disappointed in Gondles' decision to demote or fire some deputies.

"People place a lot of trust in an office like this," he said. "I'm disappointed in the fact he appears to be politicizing the office in a way that is traditionally not done here."

The sheriff is called a constitutional officer because the authority of the officeholder is defined in Virginia's Constitution and is independent of the county board.