For Leesburg’s longtime public works director, the dawn of spring means the end of a three-decade-long career in the county seat.
Tom Mason’s last day at Leesburg Town Hall will be April 29. He began his town employment on Jan. 21, 1985—“It was cold that day,” he recalls with a laugh—
and since his first day he has seen his job title change, his office move, and he has worked under several town managers and a slew of Town Council members. But through it all he has supervised virtually all the major development, and redevelopment, projects that have shaped the town.
Mason graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in civil engineering in 1973. Four years later, he completed his registration as a licensed professional engineer in the state of Virginia. He joined the town following 12 years in the private sector, working for several different consulting firms.
“The opportunity came up for director of engineering in Leesburg. The package was nice, the benefits were better, I thought I’d try it and see what happens and that was 31 years ago,” he said.
While Mason found the nature of his work in the public sector similar to what he had been doing, it was a learning curve for him when it came to how to be a good manager and supervisor.
“I was a good project manager but not a good organizational manager. I went to lots of classes and programs and struggled along but I guess I did well enough to stay,” he said with a laugh. “In the last decade I’ve been here I’ve done a lot more of that type of work than technical aspects, but I still like the technical [aspects] better. I’d much rather work out engineering design than do personnel evaluations.”
Mason has been around for several department reorganizations, the first of which occurred just one year after he started with the town. In 1986, then-Town Manager Jeff Minor combined the Engineering and Public Works departments, along with consolidating the utility plants and maintenance divisions into one
department. Mason became the new director of the Engineering and Public Works Department, a role he would hold for more than 20 years.
“The majority of my work for the first decade or more dealt with land development plans, site plans, rezonings, special exceptions, development standards, water and sewer master plans, the Design and Construction Standards Manual,” Mason said. “The main focus was land development and this place was going crazy.”
But his focus would change in 2008, after former Town Manager John Wells began a sweeping culture change in Town Hall as it related to the land development process. The Department of Plan Review was created and engineering was incorporated there. Mason would then become the public works director. Although much of the land development review process was now handled by another department, Mason still was involved in an advisory capacity for many projects.
“At one time it was my responsibility to make sure all the stuff got done, now it was more project advisory than having to take it all on my shoulders. And it needed to be done to be able to streamline the land development process. There were too many separate groups and they weren’t working close enough together. By [consolidating the departments] it was a much better process.”
Two major changes Mason has witnessed during his town tenure relate to the sweeping land development process changes—the growth of the town and town government’s heightened focus on customer service. Perhaps just as striking has been the advance in communication and how the speed of that has affected how town staff can turn around its work.
“When I came on with the town we didn’t even have a fax machine,” Mason said. The rise of new communication modes, “has increased our efficiency and increased our workload.”
Since last summer, after Mason announced his retirement plans, he has served as an assistant to Town Manager Kaj Dentler, working on special projects. This move was also prompted by a departmental reorganization—this time due to the combining of the Capital Projects and Public Works departments, with Renee LaFollette now serving as director. While in his new role he is no longer managing employees, Mason remains involved in many of the projects for which he had an advisory role—the Loudoun County Courthouse project, how to address traffic congestion on Rt. 15 north, to name a few.
The time was right to call it a career for a number of reasons, Mason said. He has achieved 30 years with the Virginia Retirement Savings program; at 66 he is now eligible for an unreduced Social Security benefit and, perhaps most importantly, he’s tired of going to nighttime Town Council meetings that can stretch into the wee hours.
He now looks forward to tackling a long list of household projects, enjoying gardening and fishing, as well as traveling with his wife of 38 years, Patricia. Mason’s two daughters were both married last year and, while no grandchildren are on the way yet, he looks forward to being an active grandparent one day.
As to what he will miss the most, the answer is an easy one: “the people.” And, despite several other department heads retiring or moving on to new jobs in recent years, Mason believes the Town of Leesburg is in excellent hands, and he looks back on his experience as a town employee as evidence.
“One thing that impressed me when I first came to work with the town is how hard everybody worked. In the private sector that I had been in everyone was good and they worked hard but if the opportunity to goof off came up, people took advantage of that. In dealing with hundreds and hundreds of employees and departments [in Leesburg] I’ve never seen that,” he said. “They’re more productive and more efficient than any other group I’ve ever worked with. We seem to be able to attract and retain a lot of really good, smart people. And those are the types of things that have kept me wanting to work here.”