The Boston Municipal Research Bureau has been looking over the shoulders of city officials for 87 years now. For more than half of those years Sam Tyler, who retires this week as its executive director, has been a part of the effort, leading the bureau for the last 36 years.
It seems impossible to imagine the city without Tyler being part of the ongoing debate — over taxes and revenue sources, personnel, schools, and union contracts — and what they net for residents and taxpayers. Those issues and countless others have all been part of his weighty municipal portfolio.
Tyler, 72, has made the research bureau into a critical combination of fiscal watchdog and conscience — never losing sight of the balance sheet, but also never forgetting that every city is only as good as the moral compass that guides it.
Under Tyler, the bureau did impeccable research, perhaps telling taxpayers more than they ever wanted to know about the city’s own budget-busters —
its pension system and health care costs. That knowledge became the basis for reforms that several decades ago would have seemed impossible.
He has led the bureau under the administrations of four very different mayors, starting with Kevin White, operating at a time when White himself came under federal investigation and a number of city employees went to prison. Subsequent mayors – Ray Flynn, Tom Menino and, today, Marty Walsh – all came to acknowledge – however grudgingly at times – that Tyler could be depended on to offer straight-up data-driven advice.
Tyler’s hand can be seen in the bureau’s annual Henry L. Shattuck Public Service Awards, named for a former bureau chairman, which for the past 33 years has celebrated the work of largely unsung heroes. Last year’s recipients included a school lunch monitor, an architect, a custodian, and a police officer. The awards are an extension of Tyler’s deeply rooted belief that public service is indeed a calling.
One of the many issues on which Tyler has been a passionate advocate is preserving Boston’s mayoral-appointed School Committee, a move he championed in the early ’90s, fought for again when it went on the ballot in 1996, and remains committed to now.
Tyler is one of those rare individuals who managed to dodge Boston’s notorious tribal wars, earning the respect of business and political leaders alike. His is a template that would-be civic leaders would be wise to emulate, and that’s the best kind of legacy.