Liset Márquez, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/22/2010 03:32:39 PM PST
ONTARIO – The city appears ready to roll up its sleeves and do battle with Los Angeles over control of LA/Ontario International Airport.
The Ontario City Council this week gave City Manager Chris Hughes the option to sue Los Angeles for violation of its joint powers agreement over the airport.
The action announced at Tuesday’s council meeting followed months of meetings and negotiations between the city and ONT’s operator Los Angeles World Airports that have produced little results.
“We mean business,” Councilman Alan Wapner said. “We’re going to continue to do whatever it takes to get that airport back to Ontario.”
Ontario officials have been pushing for a couple of years to regain control of the ailing airport the city once owned. They contend local control of ONT would better address its litany of problems.
For the past two years, passenger traffic at ONT has fallen more than 47 percent. LAWA reported that the airport served 4.88 million travelers in 2009, down from a peak of 7.2 million passengers in 2007.
LAWA officials contend that the downward trend in passenger traffic at ONT is a reflection of the economy and not mismanagement.
However, according to recent city report, LAWA’s inefficient management has increased costs for air carriers at ONT, driving flights away from the local airport.
Tuesday’s decision aims to send a message to LAWA and Los Angeles officials, Councilman Jim Bowman said.
“They must not mistake diplomacy for weakness,” Bowman said. “Ontario has great fervor in our effort to control our region’s destiny.”
The move to include a lawsuit as a possible option comes on the heels of Monday’s LAWA meeting where officials announced they would solicit ideas from the private sector and other interested parties about managing ONT.
The presentation about “Expressions of Interest” irked some Ontario officials.
Wapner, who is the city’s liaison with the airport, said he felt slighted by the announcement. Monday’s meeting was the first time he and the city learned any details about the process.
“We had been working in good faith with LAWA, involved in discussions and negotiations,” Wapner said.
At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil used the analogy “joined at the hip,” to describe the relationship between the two agencies.
But Bowman said their actions on Monday are a contradiction.
“If this is to be a relationship, (their actions) is an early indication that it’s a breach,” he said.
Wapner said the idea of alternative methods of operation had been discussed, but it was his understanding that Ontario would be part of the process as well as administer the results.
The only notice he received about the requests was a copy of the agenda that he received a day before Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t see that as good faith negotiations,” Wapner said. “It’s a prime example of why we want local control. We want to control our own asset.”
But Wapner said he is skeptical that LAWA will get any private parties interested in ONT. Privatizing an airport will be difficult, and referred to the situation at Midway Airport in Chicago as an example.
Earlier this month, the FAA granted Chicago its fifth extension, until July 31, to develop a timeline for submitting an application to privatize the airport.
Traditionally, airports are not meant to make a profit, and typically any money that is made goes back into the airport, Wapner said.
If Ontario succeeded in regaining control, Wapner said he has made it clear to Los Angeles officials that they would remain involved in the process.
Council members Tuesday increased their financial resources to fight to regain control of the airport. The council approved an additional $425,000 for its Airport Transition Team.
The city has already authorized $445,000 since November 2009 to obtain the services of consultants, attorneys and aviation specialists.
Wapner said he would prefer not to use more funds, but “we’re being forced to spend taxpayer’s money on something that’s rightfully ours.”
Ontario’s decision for potential use of litigation does not mean they are ending discussions with LAWA officials, Bowman said.
But throughout the negotiations, he said Ontario officials have been met with resistance from LAWA and Los Angeles officials.
The biggest hurdle is getting LAWA to understand how important ONT is not only to the city but the region, Bowman said.
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