WASHINGTON – While White House officials appear sympathetic to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ request to use eminent domain powers to prevent a court-ordered removal of the Mount Soledad cross, President Bush’s lawyers indicated Monday that such a move would be legally tricky, Sanders said.
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 into federal hands to preserve the white cross that towers over the La Jolla memorial.
“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.
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 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 last October that the proposition violated the state constitution.
Earlier 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, Sanders and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, proposed to the president that the federal government seize the property by eminent domain. Critics have said the cross would still violate church-state separation principles, even if it were under federal jurisdiction.
While White House officials indicated on Monday that Bush is “supportive in concept” and “appreciates the importance of the monument,” said Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz, those from the White House counsel’s office discussed the legal impediments they might encounter.
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 on Tuesday is scheduled to decide whether to appeal the judge’s order to remove the cross from city property by Aug. 1.
Conversations with the White House and the U.S. Interior Department on Monday left 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 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. Presented with the letters, he did not reply to a request for comment.
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 Monday’s meeting.
Sanders did come away from a morning meeting with Department of Homeland Security officials with some good news: San Diego can expect this year to get about the same amount it received last year – $15 million – under the federal Urban Areas Security Initiative.
“We’re not talking about a huge pot of money,” said Fred Sainz. “But we’ll be satisfied.”
San Diego, however, has been told it can no longer apply for these anti-terrorism 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 to reconsider San Diego’s eligibility. Homeland Security officials have agreed to analyze the data that were used to drop San Diego.
While Sanders said he had “productive” meetings on the matter with Homeland Security officials, he said it would likely be next spring before there is word on San Diego’s eligibility for future grants.
The mayor on Monday also met 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 planned on Tuesday to discuss similar issues in separate meetings with California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, and with San Diego Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis, also Democrats.