Ontario Suit Vs. L.A. For Return Of Airport Proceeds To Discovery Phase

(September 27) RIVERSIDE—Riverside Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Peterson on Wednesday denied the city of Los Angeles’ motion to immediately dismiss Ontario’s lawsuit against it to have ownership and control of Ontario International Airport returned to the city for which the facility is named and which hosts it.
Attorneys for Los Angeles challenged both the factual basis and legal principles cited in the lawsuit, maintaining Ontario has no legal grounds to undo the joint-powers agreement, known as a JPA, Ontario entered into with the larger city in 1967 as part of an effort to help the airport reach its passenger-handling potential. That joint powers arrangement resulted in the eventual transfer of ownership of the aerodrome to Los Angeles.
Ontario now wants to reclaim the airport and has retained the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton  to represent it.  The case is being heard in Riverside County, which is outside the jurisdictions of  San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County,  in which Ontario and Los Angeles are located.
Ontario maintains it took the extraordinary step of filing the suit because of what its officials characterize as the deliberate mismanagement of Ontario International Airport by Los Angeles World Airports, the division of the city of Los Angeles which operates Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport and Ontario Airport. Los Angeles World Airports, Ontario maintains, is engaging in the mismanagement of Ontario Airport to drive down passenger traffic there to benefit Los Angeles International Airport.
In 1967, the city of Ontario entered into a joint powers authority arrangement with the city of Los Angeles to allow Los Angeles to manage Ontario International, where passenger traffic at that time was less than 200,000 per year. Los Angeles, using its control of gate positions at Los Angeles International Airport as leverage, induced commercial airlines to fly more frequently into and out of Ontario and to use Ontario as an alternate landing destination during fog-ins at Los Angeles International Airport in lieu of Santa Barbara Airport.
Under Los Angeles’s management, use of Ontario International Airport vastly increased. Over the four-and-a-half decades Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports had control of Ontario Airport, substantial improvements were made to the facility, including the paving of its gravel parking lot, the lengthening and modernizing of its runways and the building of two modern terminals. In 1985, after all of the terms set down in the joint powers authority operating agreement had been met, Ontario deeded the airport to Los Angeles for no consideration.
In 2007, slightly more than 7.2 million passengers flew into and out of Ontario, a record for the facility. Since that time, however, as improvements at Los Angeles International Airport have been made and Los Angeles World Airports has imposed higher per-enplaned passenger fees on the airlines at Ontario than in Los Angeles, ridership into and out of Ontario has dramatically decreased, falling this year to a projected 4 million.
Ontario has for the last three years faulted Los Angeles World Airports for that decline and, after pushing for a different management approach at the airport, has lobbied to have Los Angeles return control of Ontario International Airport to Ontario. Last year, Ontario formed with San Bernardino County the Ontario International Airport Authority, an entity intended to take on management and operational responsibility at the facility upon Los Angeles surrendering and Ontario regaining ownership. Earlier this year, Ontario sued Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports in an effort to force Los Angeles to relinquish control of the airport.
Los Angeles World Airports has consistently insisted that the drawdown in passenger traffic at Ontario International Airport is a consequence of the economic slowdown gripping the nation, state and region since 2008, as well as contractions in the airline industry, and has denied Ontario’s charges that the airport is being mismanaged deliberately to decrease passenger traffic there or to benefit Los Angeles International.
While the court had given early indication that it was sympathetic to Los Angeles’ contention that under the terms of the 1967 joint powers agreement and Los Angeles’ performance with regard to it that Los Angeles is legally entitled to retaining management, operational authority and title to the facility, Peterson, a retired judge who sits by assignment to hear matters of law and motion at the court, backed away from such a definitive declaration on September 25, allowing the case to proceed into the discovery phase, giving Ontario an opportunity to ply its case that the 1967 agreement and the JPA should be dissolved or in some measure amended.
Steven Rosenthal, an attorney for Los Angeles, argued in vain that Los Angeles has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements into Ontario Airport and is staying current on $4 million worth of financing payments for those improvements.
Ontario has requested internal documents pertaining to Los Angeles World Airports’ management of the airport and wants to initiate depositions of Los Angeles officials as early as next month.
The next court hearing on the case is scheduled for December 2.

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