County Commission chairwoman Betty Whitehouse is scheduled to undergo surgery today at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to remove a malignant tumor from her colon.
Whitehouse, who has appeared visibly weakened since falling in her bathroom Dec. 21 and breaking the femur in her right leg, made the announcement at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.
As an elected official, the 64-year-old Whitehouse told fellow board members and those in attendance, it was appropriate to inform the public about her condition and how it might affect her ability to serve.
"I feel it is very important to be open and honest," said Whitehouse, who appeared to tear up at the end of her brief comments.
Tuesday, and in an interview late Monday, Whitehouse said her cancer was discovered while she was being treated for her leg injury. Doctors told her it may have gone undiagnosed for between five and 10 years, she said.
Only after surgery will the true extent of the cancer be known, but Whitehouse said it appears not to have spread to other parts of her body.
She will not be at the Feb. 3 commission meeting but plans to attend the following week. A decision on whether she will continue to serve as a commissioner and seek re-election in District 5 in November, she said, will be made when the extent of follow up treatment is known.
"My goal is to be able to declare," to run, Whitehouse said, "and be able to say I'm healthier than I ever was."
According to County Attorney Garth Coller, Whitehouse's absence during meetings would mean that in the event of a tie vote, the issue in question would have to be brought before the board again until a majority either approves or rejects it.
Because a quorum of only three commissioners is needed for the majority of board functions, Coller said that in principle, Whitehouse need not attend meetings if her treatment makes doing so impossible.
However, Coller said Whitehouse's sense of duty would not allow her to leave the board without a leader for any considerable amount of time.
"If she felt she could not do the job appropriately," he said, "she would seek a replacement."
County Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said if Whitehouse were to decide to step down from her office, Gov. Jeb Bush would name a replacement. Special elections are held, she said, only when an office is vacated 22 months before the next election cycle.
Whitehouse, a Democrat, has seen four Republicans and one candidate with no party affiliation file to run in her district in recent months. As of yet, no other Democrats have filed.
Board vice chair Diane Rowden will serve as chairwoman in Whitehouse's absence, as she did for the second half of Tuesday's meeting, after Whitehouse left to prepare for her surgery.
Rowden said Whitehouse showed strength, courage and dignity Tuesday, and that she would do her best to serve as chairwoman if Whitehouse is unable to do so.
"I'll do whatever I have to do to perform the responsibilities that I have," she said.
During a telephone interview Monday evening, Whitehouse said Hernando County did not always seem a warm and welcoming community, but the care she had been shown in recent days proved the impression false. It was a sentiment she reiterated at the end of her comments Tuesday.
"I really can't help but thank all of you for your kind words and cards and everything," she said. "Hernando County is really a very special place."
_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.