Ontario suffers legal setback in bid to regain control of its airport

Riverside judge rules against Ontario in its bid to regain control of its airport from Los Angeles

In Ontario’s legal effort to take back its commercial airport, a Riverside County judge on Thursday rejected the city’s bid to nullify decades-old agreements that gave control and ownership to the city of Los Angeles.

Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask ruled that Ontario’s transfer of LA/Ontario International Airport to Los Angeles in 1985 was unauthorized and voidable -- but said the statute of limitations for challenging changes in ownership expired in 1989.

Ontario attorneys had argued that the 1985 agreement was never put to a citywide vote as required by law, hence there was never a valid sale or transfer of the airport. Los Angeles asserted that the city brought that claim too late.

Had Trask scrapped the agreement, Ontario contends it would have cleared the way for the Inland Empire city to regain ownership of the once-popular airport, which has been steadily declining for almost eight years. 

Trask’s decision, however, does not end the lawsuit that Ontario filed in June 2013. Three breach-of-contract allegations remain intact, and a trial has been set for Aug. 17.

"Ontario looks forward to its day in court and for Los Angeles to be held accountable for its inexcusable neglect of its obligations," said Ontario Mayor Pro Tem Alan Wapner.

Wapner said the city will consider whether to appeal Trask's ruling.

"We're satisfied with the decision," said Jeff Millman, a spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "Los Angeles looks forward to future talks with our Inland Empire colleagues on a fair transfer of ownership of Ontario Airport."

The lawsuit alleges that Los Angeles World Airports mismanaged Ontario International in violation of a 1967 joint powers agreement that required the department to run the airport on behalf of Ontario and do its best to develop air service.

Under L.A.’s control, the volume of passengers at LA/Ontario grew dramatically but then plummeted from a high of 7.2 million a year in 2007 to slightly fewer than 4 million in 2013. Last year, the number of passengers increased by about 156,000.

Los Angeles officials blame the decline on the severe economic recession, which prompted airlines to relocate service to the well-established markets of major airports such as Los Angeles International.

In Thursday's ruling, Trask held that the shift in ownership to Los Angeles constituted a sale, contesting the long-held assertion by Ontario officials that it was simply a transfer of title.

Trask also upheld the 1967 joint powers agreement between Los Angeles and Ontario and rejected Ontario’s argument that the agreement should be canceled because it did not have a fixed term.

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