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Marystown mayor Sam Synard on municipal momentum

by Catherine Morrison

There's a powerful emerging force on the Canadian political scene, and it doesn't have anything to do with political parties, established or reconfigured. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a national organization that represents, with increasing success, the collective interests of municipal governments. Sam Synard completed his tenure as president of FCM in June 2000.

Since 1994, when Synard joined the Board, the FCM has become a major player on the federal scene. It now represents 82 percent of the Canadian population, says Synard, who is also the Mayor of Marystown, Newfoundland and Labrador. In this past year alone, membership has increased by 59 percent and FCM is currently driving to sign up the remaining small and rural municipalities throughout Canada. "When we go to see the Prime Minister, we want to be able to say that we speak for every municipal government in this country," says Synard. "The federal government already recognizes FCM as the clearinghouse and official voice for municipal government."

It's not just the numbers represented by FCM that get the government's ear. The organization has forged strong working ties with a number of key federal government departments and agencies, including Elections Canada, Canada Post, Transport Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). With CIDA, FCM currently spends some $6 million per year on 14 international projects in 26 countries throughout the world. Because Canadian municipal governments are considered among the strongest in the world from a democratic process standpoint, FCM is much in demand to deliver training and assistance on both democratic and economic development fronts, says Synard.

Another reason for FCM's currency with the federal government, speculates Synard, is a strong ally in the Prime Minister's (PM) office. Jean Pelletier, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, is the former mayor of Québec City and a former president of FCM. According to Synard, "He has a profound understanding of municipal issues."

So the federal government listens when FCM comes to call. One of the key accomplishments of Synard's presidency is the turnaround that FCM effected on the PM's stance regarding the national infrastructure program. Synard relates that when he first met with the PM on this subject during a trade mission to Japan in September of 1999, an infrastructure program was "not even on the PM's radar screen." From mid-September to mid-December, however, "the PM went a complete 180 degrees." In a massive and carefully orchestrated effort, FCM targeted the PM's office, all the senior cabinet ministers and every member of parliament with any background in municipal government. Seventy-seven MPs were identified who had been mayors or municipal councillors. These 77 understood the issue well and were strong advocates of a national infrastructure program for municipalities.

As a result, the spring 2000 federal budget commits the government to a $2.6 billion municipal infrastructure program, including an $125 million environment endowment and $753 million for shelter and services for the homeless, $400 million of which is new money, according to Synard. Affordable housing is one of the key priorities for FCM, and the organization intends to keep up the pressure for the allocation of additional monies to relieve homelessness. Synard recalls a recent meeting between the FCM and the finance minister, when "in front of a large number of people," the finance minister called homelessness a national embarrassment and agreed that the federal government must re-invest in affordable housing.

FCM's political accomplishments are good news for regional economic development and they mean heavy procurement activity on the horizon at the municipal level. Synard points to the increase in municipal-level procurement that has occurred in the years since governments began off-loading services to municipalities. The most recent figures indicate that municipal spending on procurement is some $42.5 billion annually, according to Synard.

What the infrastructure program means is that over a billion dollars a year in new money will flow into municipalities for capital projects and spending on services. The $125 million environment endowment will be administered by FCM. (See "Money Talks: new federal funds flow through the FCM" in Summit's June 2000 issue.)

Synard will continue to serve on the FCM Board as past-president. When asked what role he envisions the organization can have in maximizing the significance of government procurement practices in the development of local economies, especially those of small and rural communities, he responded by citing the Finnish model. Finland's national organization of municipal bodies provides a sort of clearinghouse for procurement services, even offering member bodies accounting, legal and engineering services maintained by the national organization.

The difference in Canada, he says, is that in several provinces, including Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, there are already municipal procurement associations that function to maximize municipal-level procurement. This is an area where FCM has not yet gone; it has been chiefly a lobbying organization, and the lobbying seems to be paying off. Municipalities are ramping up their procurement as a result. Local economies can't help but benefit. 

Catherine Morrison is a writer based in Chelsea, Quebec. Her work is also published in the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail's print and online editions. She was a full-time writer/broadcaster for CBC Network Television and CBC TV and Radio, Winnipeg, a contributing editor and columnist for Winnipeg Magazine, and has had freelance work published in Canadian Consumer, Asia Pacific Magazine, the Edmonton Journal and C.A.R.P. Magazine. She is also Managing Director of Morrison&Associates, which supplies communications and public affairs services to government and the high-tech sector.



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