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When it comes to illness, LA's elected officials take different paths to disclosure (updated)

When it comes to disclosing medical issues, some Los Angeles city politicians wait weeks or months. Councilman Bill Rosendahl announced his cancer diagnosis within a week of hearing the news.
When it comes to disclosing medical issues, some Los Angeles city politicians wait weeks or months. Councilman Bill Rosendahl announced his cancer diagnosis within a week of hearing the news.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

Within a week of finding out he had cancer, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl used his blog to tell constituents and reporters about the diagnosis. 

The gregarious councilman described how he discovered what he thought was a back injury was, in fact, cancer in his pelvic region. Rosendahl detailed his pain and announced that he was starting medical treatment.

That level of disclosure, which was immediate and open, is not always the case when a public figure has a personal medical issue. With no clear guide regarding disclosure, it is often up to the individual politician to determine when and what to share. 

In April of 2007, then-city Controller Laura Chick discovered she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery four months later, but it wasn’t until January of the following year that she acknowledged her condition. The decision not to share that information was reflective of Chick’s personality, she said. 

“I’m a very private person,” Chick said in a recent interview. “There really was a pretty clear dividing line for me as to what was my personal life and what was my public life.” 

Councilman Bernard Parks also faced that line when he underwent surgery last December. It was about three weeks later that his office acknowledged his absence from City Hall was the result of elective surgery to repair an old injury. The office declined to provide additional details, and Parks declined to be interviewed for this article.

At the time of her illness, Chick was fighting with council members over the direction of the city’s anti-gang programs. The intensity of that work also influenced her decision to keep the diagnosis quiet.

“I was a warrior at the time," she said, "and so being seen as a recuperating cancer patient didn’t fit with where I wanted to go at that moment, at that time.” 

In her role as controller, Chick was able to maintain a low-profile and take off three-to-four weeks for treatment without many people noticing. In contrast, Rosendahl’s absence was noticeable when he did not return July 24 from the summer recess. He missed the next three meetings, then announced he had cancer.

“Bill, just by his nature, is very open and transparent and forthcoming,” said Mike Bonin, the councilman’s chief of staff. 

“It’s a fine line you want to walk between being forthcoming and respecting Bill’s privacy. I don’t anticipate we’re going to do the Katie Couric route and YouTube medical procedures and stuff like that.”

City council members cannot miss 60 consecutive days of work, unless they are ill. A leave of absence can only be approved by a majority vote of the council.

Disclosure can also depend on whether the medical issue is an unexpected injury. When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was thrown from his bicycle two summers ago, the Los Angeles Times reported the accident within hours. The mayor ended up with a broken elbow that later required surgery.

At the time, he took to his Twitter account to update constituents on his condition, writing: “Got my stitches taken out, and everything looks good! I’m on the road to recovery and will be back on my bike in no time.”

Herb Wesson, president of the Los Angeles City Council, ended up in the emergency room earlier this year when he took a spill down some stairs. There was no explanation for his week-long absence until Wesson returned to the council chamber and told the audience the fall left him looking “like Joe Frazier after 'The Thrilla in Manila.' ”

“Many of you called. Many of you sent texts," Wesson said. "Even (Councilman Paul) Koretz said, 'I heard you got elbowed by Metta World Peace,' so you see how sensitive he was. I truly appreciate it.”

Updated: Councilman Bill Rosendahl released a video today thanking constituents for their support. 

This post has been updated.