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Voters sign up to save Mount Soledad cross

Opponents of the City Council’s recent decision not to donate the land under the Mount Soledad cross site to the federal government in a last-ditch attempt to save it have until April 7 to collect 33,610 valid signatures. That’s the number of signatures necessary to put a referendum on an election ballot asking voters whether they want to overturn the council’s decision.

On March 8, the City Council voted 5-3 against donating the half-acre cross site to the National Park Service in an attempt to preserve the 43-foot-tall Korean War memorial cross, which has stood on the mountaintop since 1954. The idea was founded on legislation by Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham that would make the cross a national monument, hopefully protecting it from further legal action.

However, City Councilman Scott Peters, representing La Jolla, was joined by councilmembers Michael Zucchet, Toni Atkins, Donna Frye and Ralph Inzunza in voting not to donate the site. Mayor Dick Murphy and councilmen Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienschein voted in favor of transferring the cross to the federal government.

Peters said he voted against the land donation because he couldn’t ignore the constitutional issues that separate church and state. He also said that he promised the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which built and maintains the cross, that he’d support their efforts to have it moved if voters didn’t authorize the sale of the land back in November 2004.

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Proposition K, which would have authorized the sale, was rejected by 60 percent of voters. If passed, it would have been the third attempt to sell the property. The courts previously rejected the sale by the city to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.

Since the council’s vote, Christians and non-Christians have begun a grassroots group, San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial, formed to save the cross from being moved or destroyed. The group has been collecting voter signatures to force the city to either reverse its decision on turning the cross over to the National Park Service or calling a special election to put the issue once again before voters. Signatures are now being collected citywide.

Phil Thalheimer, who ran unsuccessfully against Peters in the 2004 First District City Council race, is chairing the new group.

“Business people, church people, private citizens and volunteers have all gotten together to protect the war memorial and make sure it stays intact as it is, where it is,” said Thalheimer. “We want to push the council to relook at the idea of donating the land to the federal government. That’s an option, to protect and create a national war memorial right where it is that the federal government has already accepted.”

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As of March 28, Thalheimer said 40,000 signatures had been gathered in support of the cross referendum.

“We’re shooting for 50,000 by April 1,” he said.

Assistant City Clerk Joyce Lane said 33,610 signatures is required for the cross referendum to succeed. That is 5 percent of registered voters from the last general election, as required in the city’s Municipal Code. More signatures than that will be needed, she added, because a portion will be deemed invalid.

“We have 30 days to verify the signatures,” Lane said. “If they’ve got enough to qualify, the clerk takes that back to the mayor and City Council. They have the option to rescind their original action. Or, they can put it before the voters at a special election within 11 months.”