August 4, 2014

Exclusive: Councilwoman Plaugh set for surgery, likely for cancer

Columbia Council’s brashest voice of spending controls to undergo surgery next week, likely for cancer

Columbia City Council’s most outspoken fiscal conservative is to undergo surgery next week to remove what her oncologist said is likely a cancerous mass on her right thigh.

“It hasn’t really affected my ability to function,” Leona Plaugh told The State newspaper Monday at her home. “Either way it goes,” she said of the Aug. 12 surgery at Emory University Hospital, “I’m holding out hope that we’re going to get through this.”

She agreed to discuss her health publicly as a way of disclosing her condition to her constituents in District 4, which stretches along the southeastern edges of town.

Plaugh plans to continue serving her second term, which she won in November.

“It’s real important for people to know what’s going on and that I’m available to answer any questions they might have,” the once-controversial Columbia city manager said.

She plans to issue an email before Tuesday’s council work session that will go to fellow council members, the city manager and constituents with whom she communicates regularly.

She said she has been on pain medication for several weeks.

Plaugh said she noticed a lump on her thigh around Memorial Day. She went to her internist, who did MRIs and CAT scans and consulted with a local oncologist. The internist referred Plaugh to a surgical oncologist at the university hospital in Atlanta, where more tests were conducted.

The specialist at Emory, Maria C. Russell, and two teams of university doctors reviewed her medical records, Plaugh said. They did not, however, perform a biopsy.

“What they see in my leg is a little unusual,” Plaugh said. “That’s why they didn’t do a biopsy. That’s why she decided to go in and take out the whole mass.”

Plaugh said she infers that the team at Emory fears a biopsy might trigger a spread of diseased cells.

“What happens if it’s not cancer?” Plaugh said as her husband, Joe, and family friend and political adviser Phil Bailey sat with her in the family’s den. “We’ve got to have experts looking at it from that perspective, too.”

Plaugh was at Emory July 3, which caused her family to cancel plans for a vacation at the beach, where they were to celebrate Independence Day, a family get-together that was to have included her first grandchild and Plaugh’s 62nd birthday, which is July 4.

If the growth proves to be cancerous, Plaugh said her team at Emory is suggesting spot radiation treatments after the surgery.

She plans to recuperate at home and return to Emory for further testing.

Plaugh, who rarely misses a council meeting, was not present at the June 17 and July 15 meetings. The first was because of a prior, out-of-state business commitment and the second was when she was at Emory, Plaugh said.

She has become a key voice for residents critical of the way a council majority spends public money and makes some of its decisions.

Plaugh frequently challenges Mayor Steve Benjamin and council’s majority on subjects as wide-ranging as changing the city’s form of government to a strong-mayor system to proposals for borrowing from retirement funds for city workers to finance the purchase of Palmetto Compress Warehouse.

She was a city employee for 26 years until council fired her in March 2003 after two years as city manager. Her hotly disputed firing turned on a document found on her office computer that outlined a plan to “destroy” seven highly placed city staffers.

Plaugh called for a public airing of her argument that the document was misconstrued and was part of her attempt to cut off direct contact with employees by council members – which violates state law in Columbia’s council-manager form of government.

She later became the representative of the city’s fastest-growing area.

When Columbia reapportioned its election districts in 2011, 3,900 registered voters from District 4 were moved into adjoining District 3. That electoral change was made because most of the 13,000 people who had moved into Columbia settled in District 4 and the city needed to equalize the sizes of its districts.

District 4 includes residences behind the VA hospital, the Hamptons neighborhoods and homes along Garners Ferry Road and Fort Jackson Boulevard.

Plaugh is maintaining a positive outlook about her prognosis.

“I really feel good about it,” she said of the surgery and her future. “I don’t know why, but I do.”

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