San Diego Union Tribune

May 23, 2006

U.S. deal on cross is termed difficult
Sanders reports on White House talks

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON – White House officials told Mayor Jerry Sanders they are sympathetic to his call for federal action to keep the cross on Mount Soledad, but President Bush's lawyers warned that such a move would be legally tricky.

Sanders, who is back in the nation's capital for the third time in two months, participated in a 40-minute lunchtime meeting with Ruben Barrales, Bush's director for intergovernmental affairs, as well as White House lawyers and policy staffers, about how to put Mount Soledad property into federal hands to preserve the white cross that towers over the memorial there.

“They indicated it's going to be tough to get this done and we're going to have to work real hard and they'll give us as many options as they can,” Sanders said in an interview.

The memorial at Mount Soledad was built in the early 1950s to commemorate the service of Korean War veterans. But for the past 17 years, the cross has been subject to lawsuits, public debates and three public votes.

Last July, nearly 76 percent of city voters embraced Proposition A, a ballot measure that would have allowed the city to transfer the cross to the federal government. But San Diego Superior Court Judge Patricia Yim Cowett ruled in October that the proposition violated the state constitution.

This month, U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. gave the city 90 days to remove the cross or face a daily fine of $5,000.

Nearly two weeks ago, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, asked the president to have the federal government seize the property by eminent domain. Sanders immediately supported the plan.

Critics have said the cross would still violate church-state separation principles, even if it were under federal jurisdiction.

While White House officials indicated yesterday that Bush is “supportive in concept” and “appreciates the importance of the monument,” lawyers from the White House counsel's office discussed the legal impediments they might encounter, according to Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz.

Said Sanders: “I do think they're willing to move in that direction, but they're still exploring how to get this done in the most expeditious way. I think eminent domain is difficult from anybody's perspective, and they want to make sure they're on sound legal ground before they move in that direction.”

The San Diego City Council today is scheduled to decide whether to appeal the judge's order to remove the cross from city property by Aug. 1.

The White House and the Interior Department yesterday gave the impression that little so far has been done, or even communicated, about Sanders' request to seize the Mount Soledad land. A White House spokeswoman referred media calls about the Mount Soledad issue to the Interior Department.

But Interior spokesman Shane Wolfe said he had not yet seen Hunter's or Sanders' letters to the president. Presented with copies of the letters by a reporter, he later referred calls to the Department of Justice, where a spokesman would not comment on the matter.

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said Hunter and Sanders are working “directly with the White House.”

“It is my understanding that the meeting was very productive and the conversation was focused on the importance and future of the war memorial,” said Kasper, who said a Hunter staffer was at yesterday's meeting.

Meanwhile, Sanders said he also had a productive meeting with Homeland Security officials on San Diego's attempt to stay on the priority list for anti-terrorism grants under the Urban Areas Security Initiative.

But he said it would likely be next spring before there is word on San Diego's eligibility for future grants.

San Diego has been told it will not be permitted to apply for these grants because it is no longer among the nation's high-risk areas.

Sanders, county supervisors, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the region's congressional delegation have asked the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider San Diego's eligibility. Homeland Security officials have agreed to analyze the data that were used to drop San Diego from the list.

San Diego was awarded $15 million under the program last year.

The mayor also met yesterday with Debbie Spero, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and with Gianne Conrad, national director of the General Services Administration, to lobby for more funding to expand the 24-lane San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Sanders was joined by Baja Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther and business leaders and government officials from Mexico and San Diego.

Sanders plans to discuss similar issues in meetings today with California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, and with San Diego Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis, also Democrats.

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