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Providence's choice.

Voters here go to the polls Tuesday to choose a new mayor - and possibly a different form of government. The difference stems from the possibility that a new mayor will fully implement the city charter, which lays out the ground rules for city government. The charter was to go into effect in 1982, but by some accounts it was ''ignored'' by the administration of former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.

Tuesday's special mayoral election, which pits four candidates against each other, follows the resignation of Mr. Cianci. He was forced to step down last April after a conviction on assault charges.

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In recent months, Providence has had more than its share of political upheaval. After his resignation, Cianci doggedly tried to run in the special election to fill the remainder of his term. His effort was challenged all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he lost.

Beyond that, federal and state officials have recently indicted 14 city employees on charges of conspiracy related to kickbacks, ties to organized crime , and charging the city for work not performed. Federal, state, and local investigations are continuing into alleged cases of wrongdoing.

For some residents here in the capital of Rhode Island, the election has a broader scope than simply choosing a new mayor. They see it as an opportunity to restore the embattled city government, administratively and morally.

Victoria Lederberg, lawyer, professor of psychology at Rhode Island College, and lifelong resident of Providence, says the city needs a mayor who has ''the will to put plans for the benefit of the city ahead of politics and personal gain. A will, and sincerity, and a cooperative spirit to make things work. And more important, a sense that they can work.''

Dr. Lederberg, who is also a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, says: ''Providence is a lovely city, a beautiful place to live. So many of us wish we could capitalize on the positive, rather than what's wrong with us.''

To some, the provisions in the city charter are precisely what are needed to help improve government and boost city morale. Melvyn Gelch, who was chairman of the Home Rule Charter Commission, says the document specifies how the city government should be run.

Dr. Gelch says the charter defines the mayor's administrative powers, and gives the mayor more control over the administration than under the old charter. And it includes a line-item veto for the budget, and the power to ''remove department heads at the pleasure of the mayor,'' he says.

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It sets the legislative powers of the City Council and ''provides subpeona and investigative powers to ferret out corruption.''

The charter also calls for a salary review commission to separate politics from the process of setting salaries. It mandates a balanced budget and requires that all city employees live in the city.

It spells out specific requirements for department heads. For instance, Gelch says, the commissioner of the Department of Public Works must be an engineer. The city solicitor must be a full-time employee. He can't be running a private practice on the side.

''The charter is a guide to good government. But it is only as good as the people who implement it,'' he says. ''The charter spirit has been violated at every turn by the (Cianci) administration.''

The mayoral candidates have taken different positions on the city charter. Acting Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. and candidate Kevin A. McKenna say the intent is good, but the charter has some problems. On the other hand, Frederick Lippett pledges fully to implement the charter.

A poll released Sunday by Providence television station WLNE indicates Mr. Paolino and Mr. Lippitt are the front-runners with 26 percent and 21 percent of the vote, respectively. The poll, which has a 5 percent margin of error, showed Mr. McKenna with 8 percent and Emmanuel Torti with less than 1 percent. More than 40 percent of the voters surveyed were still undecided.

In interviews with the candidates, each one outlined what would be the priorities of his administration as well as his views on the charter.

Joseph R. Paolino Jr., a Democrat, promises to operate the city like a business. He has been City Council president since 1983 and became acting mayor upon Cianci's resignation.

He has been on the City Council for six years, and says he is the only candidate with experience in municipal government.

If his opponents had been catapulted into the mayor's office with no transition, as he was, he says they would have taken much longer to set things in order. He says he ''knew what buttons to push.''

In the former administration, he says, ''the city was not managed properly. There was a lot of duplication of services.''

The intent of the new charter is good, he says, but it has some problems. Paolino is waiting for the results of a management study by the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council, which will suggest ways the city can streamline operations. That report is due in August.

''Providence is a great city,'' Paolino says, ''but the saga has been like a soap opera. Now is the time to heal wounds.'' Electing a new mayor will be the final chapter in the soap opera, he says.

Frederick Lippitt asks voters to give him 21/2 years to change the city. He says he will fully implement the city charter and will not seek reelection.

Lippitt, a lawyer who served 20 years in the state legislature, including 12 years as minority House leader, says Providence's problems are common to older cities: declining education, urban blight, and crime. ''But we also have massive corruption. We've got to clean house,'' he says.

By implementing the charter there are ''lots of opportunities to improve things. The new charter makes it possible for the mayor to be much more effective.'' He says it will provide the opportunity to bring new people to decisionmaking positions in the administration.

Although Lippitt is the Republican National Committee member from Rhode Island, he is running as an independent candidate. He says there is ''no Republican or Democratic way to run the city. We can't have politics as usual.''

Kevin A. McKenna likens himself to Boston's Mayor Raymond L. Flynn - a populist who campaigned on promises of bolstering the city's sagging neighborhoods.

McKenna is a lawyer and state representative. He says the city has to ''get back to basics, with services and finances. Even if we didn't have corruption, we'd still have a problem.''

He says the city's revenue base (property taxes) should be spent on basic municipal functions for city residents, such as police and fire protection, garbage collection, and maintaining the streets.

But the taxes also provide $1.5 million for the Port of Providence, and support the Roger Williams Park and the zoo, which draw visitors from the entire state. Colleges are exempt from property taxes, and high-rise buildings downtown often receive abatements, he says. These institutions are being subsidized by homeowners, he says.

McKenna says the charter has ''good concepts, but structurally is a disaster. (It) does not make for good city government.'' He would work to have it changed.

Although McKenna is currently serving in the state legislature as a Democrat, he, too, is running as an independent.

Emmanuel Torti is an inventor and a building contractor. He is campaigning without a staff and estimates he will spend less than $5,000 in his bid for office. He says voters are fed up with ''trying to be bought by $300,000 or $400 ,000 campaigns.''

(By camparison, Paolino estimates he has spent $280,000, Lippitt puts his spending at $200,000, and McKenna says his campaign has cost about $17,000.)

''Corruption follows organization,'' asserts Mr. Torti. For instance, he suggests that the mayor ''leave education matters to the School Department. (Don't) take politics into it.''

He says his interests are ''humanitarian,'' and he ''feels for the ordinary people.'' He says he would work to provide tax relief for the elderly, and would work to clean up polluted Narragansett Bay.

According to reformist Gelch, the city charter was mandated by the people of Providence in 1980, when it passed by more than a 3-to-2 margin. He says the old charter was last revised in 1940 and was ''grossly outdated.''

He collected signatures for a petition for several years, he says, and was elected along with eight others to the charter commission. The group drafted a new document, which went to the voters in 1980.

''[It] was partly ignored under Cianci,'' agrees Dr. Lederberg. She suggests the new administration ''use and implement the charter to serve the needs of the people.'' It can be circumvented, she says, ''but with goodwill it can do a lot.''

Gelch, a transplanted New Yorker, says, ''I would not leave Providence under any circumstance. It's a great city. There are hard working people here, and enough people who want to see the city advance.'' But he adds with chagrin, ''It's going to take a long, long time to get straightened out and overcome the embarrassment of Cianci and the indictments.''

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