The University of the District of Columbia announced plans to spend $1.6 million to prepare space for a controversial artwork. The mayor said he might veto legislation on the homeless after signing that very bill the night before. And an independent commission found the D.C. bureaucracy bloated beyond those of 12 comparable cities.

Then, Thursday, Mayor Marion Barry rescinded the same furloughs of government workers that he had ordered a month earlier, saying he had changed his mind. Robert Pohlman, D.C. deputy mayor for finance, was infuriated by the flip-flop, and in language rare for so loyal an aide, warned yesterday that the city "will die" if its financial crisis is not addressed.

By his extraordinary language, Pohlman drew attention to the leadership crisis that many observers contend is just as bad, if not worse, than the fiscal problems now besetting the District. In this summer of seeming chaos, they say, the ship of state goes sailing on, but who is at the helm?

"It's quasi-anarchy in this city right now," said Sam Smith, a local editor and longtime commentator on the District and its politics. "We've got a lame duck mayor -- only more so, because the guy's every moment is taken up with his own personal problems."

"There's no way you can have things going in a nice, orderly direction at this time," Smith said.

Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District, said he views things somewhat differently. Dixon attributed much of what's happening in the District to the "maturing pains that any community would experience, having been operating under limited home rule for 15 or 16 years."

"The District will grow out of it and come out of it stronger," Dixon said yesterday.

At the same time, though, Dixon said there are a set of problems that, for the period they remain unresolved, will "give cover for anybody {in Congress} who was predisposed to interfere in the business of the District of Columbia."

"There is no doubt all reasonable people would say the city is facing some immediate crises," Dixon said, referring to the city government deficit and the leadership vacuum created by Barry's drug conspiracy and perjury trial.

One of the casualties of this disorderly, in-between time before Barry retires as mayor, has been the political season that will determine his successor, according to many analysts. Polls indicate the mayor's race has so far produced no political figure around whom broad segments of Washington could rally; in many voter surveys, the most popular candidate is Undecided.

Smith and others blame the local and national media's unrelenting attention to the Barry case for effectively drowning out the kind of spirited debate about the District's future that should be accompanying the mayoral campaign.

"Part of the way you recover is to start arguing about the future," Smith said. "You have to have the debate about where you're going to go."

At a news conference yesterday, Barry said he will be a hands-on executive until the day he leaves office, on Jan. 2. But many in his own administration doubt that the mayor retains enough political capital to do that.

Meanwhile, none of the mayoral candidates has found the new idea, the innovative program, or the voice that resonates among large numbers of D.C. voters. Several of the Democratic candidates have said they detect a hunger for leadership, but with only 45 days to go before the party's crucial primary election, that craving still has not been satisfied.

Like Dixon, Smith said Washingtonians have the capacity to solve their problems in a spirit of community, in large part because the nation's capital "still has some of the aspects of the small town."

But things may remain unsettled for the short term, said Smith, who has lived in the city for most of his 52 years.

"We're in the same sort of situation if Richard Nixon had been impeached," Smith said of the tumult created by the Barry trial. "It's really hurting us. We end up being punished as a city."