LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles City Council has approved negotiations with Ontario, Calif. officials that could result in L.A./Ontario International Airport being returned to local control.

Ontario handed over operations of the airport, 39 miles east of downtown L.A., to Los Angeles in 1967, and later transferred ownership in 1985, but the inland city has been lobbying for the return of the airport for the past three years after traffic there experienced a severe decline.

Passenger counts at the airport declined from 7.2 million in 2007 to 4.5 million in 2011, according to a report from the Los Angeles City Administrative Office.

Moody’s Investors Service on June 29 affirmed the A3 revenue bond ratings for the Ontario airport, but maintained a negative outlook based on the decline in enplanement levels. Moody’s had downgraded the bonds to A3 from A2, a year earlier.

“This is the next step in a process that has been taking place for three years,” said John Wapner, an Ontario City Councilman. “All this does is allow us to sit down and reach a deal. I am hopeful we can reach an agreement resulting in the return of the airport.”

The airport in Ontario is run by Los Angeles World Airports, the city enterprise that runs Los Angeles International Airport.

The Los Angeles council voted 10-2 vote in favor of negotiations. They also rejected Ontario’s December 2011 offer to pay Los Angeles $246 million for return of the airport, following a recommendation from Miguel Santana, Los Angeles’ city administrative officer.

Ontario offered $50 million in cash to go to Los Angeles’ general fund. The offer also included $71 million to pay off existing bond debt and reimbursing Los Angeles more than $125 million in airport fees over time.

Santana said the $50 million proposed for the city’s general fund would represent a diversion of aviation dollars from the airport and be opposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Los Angeles World Airports director Gina Marie Lindsey has previously been vehemently opposed to the transfer of the Ontario airport to local control.

But Maria Tesoro, LAWA spokeswoman, said Lindsey is amenable to the negotiations process and to fully cooperating with what the council recommends. The airport director would support the sale of the airport to Ontario, if the right price and terms and conditions could be agreed upon, Tesoro said.

City Councilman Tony Cárdenas, who voted against negotiating the return of the airport to local control along with Councilman Richard Alarcon, has been a long-time opponent of selling the airport.

He feels regionalization of the Ontario airport, along with Van Nuys and Palmdale airports also controlled by LAWA, is good for Southern California.

Cárdenas also wants to maintain the quality of life possible for airport workers at Ontario, who receive wages based on what prevailing wage is in Los Angeles, as opposed to the lower wages paid in Ontario.

“The City of Ontario and the community that wants to take Ontario Airport away from us cannot handle the responsibility of running this facility,” Cárdenas said. “I don’t believe they have the capacity or the commitment to the airport, its workers, or the litany of vendors that depend on Ontario’s success.”

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