Thursday, July 21, 2005 | “A” it seems, is for Ambiguity.

Whether Proposition A, which San Diegans will vote on in next week’s special election, will indeed “save” the Mount Soledad Cross is a tough and chewy bone of contention. Essentially, it depends whom you ask. But while the public’s attention is focused on the constitutionality of Proposition A – and its pros and cons as a mechanism for keeping the cross how it is and where it is – there is a less conspicuous, but no less contentious problem plaguing the memorial atop Mount Soledad. That is the continuing role of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association in preserving and maintaining the 29-foot cross and the granite walls that surround it.

The Memorial Association raised the money for the original construction of the cross in 1952. Since then, it has partnered with the city of San Diego to develop the land into a park, and has had an active role in maintaining the memorial. After all its hard work, the association now finds itself facing a future that is uncertain at best.

In essence, if Proposition A passes, the cross site will be transferred to the federal government. The idea is to put the cross and the tiny parcel of land surrounding it under federal control in an attempt to circumvent a federal court’s decision that the cross – as a religious symbol – should not sit on city land. The proposition works hand-in-hand with legislation introduced last year by Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Escondido) and Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon). The legislation, which the congressmen tacked onto the end of a mammoth budget bill, states that the federal government will take possession of the memorial and the land it sits on when San Diego voters choose to offer it to them. That is what a “Yes” vote on Proposition A would achieve.

But what has the Memorial Association nervous is exactly what will happen to them if and when such a transfer takes place. The legislation appears to be clear. It states that, “The Secretary of the Interior shall administer the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial as a unit of the National Park System, except that the Secretary shall enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Mount Soledad Memorial Association for the continued maintenance by the association of the cross and surrounding granite memorial walls and plaques of the memorial.”

That would appear to put the Memorial Association on pretty solid ground.

Not so fast, however. Despite continued requests by the Memorial Association to the National Park Service, they have not received such a memorandum of understanding. Indeed, senior representatives of the National Park Service have stated that entering into such an agreement would be “premature” before the memorial has been transferred. For the Memorial Association, that seems a little like agreeing to rent an apartment before you know what the rent is, whether the water works and, indeed, whether you can even live there.

“(By not entering into a memorandum of understanding) it leaves their hands untied with regard to operating this park in line with other parks in the park system,” said William Kellogg, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association. “If [the National Park Service] obligate themselves to do things in a way that we would like them to happen, which do not coincide with the regulations of the National Park Service, I believe they could come under a great deal of criticism for treating us as a special case.”

What Kellogg is referring to is the day-to-day affairs of the Memorial Association that are not necessarily either in line with, or even allowable under the National Park Service’s rules. One example Kellogg cited is selling memorial plaques honoring veterans. This activity is the primary source of revenue for the association. Kellogg said selling plaques honoring individuals is expressly forbidden by current National Park regulations. It is confusion like this that most concerns the Memorial Association.

Proponents of Proposition A, however, are quick to point out that the National Park Service has by no means been silent on this matter. Phil Thalheimer, chairman of San Diegans for the Mount Soledad War Memorial, said the National Park Service made its intentions perfectly clear during a meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 11. Present at the meeting were Reps. Cunningham and Hunter and their aides, representatives of the Memorial Association and San Diegans for the Mount Soledad War Memorial and representatives and attorneys from the National Park Service. Thalheimer said the mood that permeated the meeting, and the results that stemmed from it, were crystal clear.

“(National Park Service Deputy Director Donald W. Murphy) told the members of the War Memorial Association they will be able to function precisely as they function now, with two changes: The ownership obviously would be listed as the federal government, and if they would do any significant change to the property … the National Park Service would like to be informed.”

Kellogg and Charles Berwanger, the Memorial Association’s attorney, said they didn’t dispute the positive tone of the meeting, but insisted they can’t understand why that hasn’t translated into a written commitment. It’s not as if they haven’t tried. On numerous occasions, association members have written to Murphy asking him to confirm the National Park Service’s commitment to a meaningful ongoing relationship with the association. They said all they have received back are half-promises.

“It’s vital,” said Berwanger of the need for such a written agreement. “There were promises made, including getting a written commitment from the National Park Service. That written confirmation has not been forthcoming. The association has satisfied its end of the bargain without a commensurate effort by the National Park Service.”

Murphy, of the National Park Service, played down any cause for alarm on the association’s behalf. Though he again declined to comment on the need for a memorandum of understanding between his organization and the Memorial Association, he reiterated what he and others said at the May 11 meeting in Washington, D.C.

“What we represented to them at the time was that we would work with them to see to it that their role remained substantially the same, recognizing that there would be differences, and that we would work those differences out in an agreement once the transfer was effective.”

The net result of all this is ambiguity.

Many San Diego voters do not really fully understand the meaning of Proposition A. Further, the one organization that actually has a legitimate vested interest in the future of the cross, the land it sits on and the memorial itself, has been left in something of a legal void.

The verbal contracts the Memorial Association has secured from the National Park Service may turn out to be worth the paper they’re written on.

By that time, of course, it may just be too late.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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