In the summer of 2021, the city council voted to investigate circumstances surrounding an expansion and renovation of the Kemah City Hall, parking lot, and visitor center that had been completed in 2019.
Under Joiner’s previous term as mayor from 2015 to 2019, the renovation had been approved with a projected cost of $750,000. However, according to former Mayor Terri Gale, who unseated Joiner in 2019, costs ballooned to nearly $1.9 million by the time of completion.
“When I took office, the original contracts for the project were missing from city files, and I could not find any approved change orders to justify the cost increases,” Gale told The Texan.
Records management has long been a subject of contention at Kemah City Hall. At a February 16 meeting, Council member Doug Meisinger warned of issues with the file room, saying, “Anybody can just walk in there and just take anything they want.”
“The fact is that there is no door there, there’s no camera there, there’s no nothing. It’s documented that some things have gone missing in this place,” said Meisinger.
Gale says the city attorney attempted to obtain original contracts from both Joiner and contractor Durotech Builders, to no avail. She then filed a criminal complaint with the Galveston County district attorney’s office, but no action was taken. Later, the city council retained the Lewis Brisbois law firm to conduct a civil investigation into contract procurement, spending, and overall compliance with contracts related to the renovation.
According to Joiner’s lawsuit filed in Galveston County, the city has received a report from Lewis Brisbois on the matter. In August, Joiner said he sought the release of the report along with communications between the city and Lewis Brisbois through an open records request. The city then appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to block the release, claiming attorney-client privilege or attorney work product privilege.
Joiner’s attorneys argue that since the report has been openly discussed at council meetings, any appeal to attorney-client privilege is effectively waived. They also allege that the city has violated the state’s Open Meetings and Public Information Acts.
The lawsuit alleges that after receiving an initial report, city council members “were presumably unhappy with the contents” and requested that Lewis Brisbois continue to investigate and interview witnesses while excluding Joiner.
Lewis Brisbois’ attorneys have since interviewed additional witnesses; Gale says attorney Randy Lopez interviewed her on September 21. Although Lopez told her he would need to talk to her again, Gale asserts she has not heard from any Lewis Brisbois attorney since then.
Joiner’s lawsuit also questions the ongoing legal fees paid without publicly available results.
“The citizens of Kemah have a right to see the Report that has cost them thousand[s] of tax dollars and concerns the renovation of their City Hall,” the lawsuit states.
The day after Joiner filed his suit, the city council convened at a previously scheduled special meeting at which they were to consider severing ties with Lewis Brisbois. However, after an executive session, Joiner announced there would be no action on those items.
Since winning reelection to the mayoral seat in 2021, Joiner has frequently clashed with city council members. Earlier this year, the city council voted to file a criminal complaint against him with the Texas Rangers and FBI over allegations that he had ordered Police Chief Holland Jones to surveil Meisinger.
Joiner has also filed defamation lawsuits against former mayor and council member Matt Wiggins and local citizen Daniel Conrad. Wiggins has since removed billboards claiming Joiner had pleaded guilty to ethics violations.
In addition to billing the city for services related to the investigation into Joiner and the renovation project, Lewis Brisbois represents the city on numerous other matters.
In 2021, Lewis Brisbois was tasked with an investigation into Jones, and later delivered a report to the city council in an executive session. After the City sought to block a Public Information Act request for the report, the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG) ruled that it must be released. Instead, Lewis Brisbois attorney Bill Helfand filed a still-pending lawsuit against the OAG in an attempt to keep that report out of the public eye.
Helfand also represents Kemah in a pending federal lawsuit alleging the City engaged in violations of the Takings, Due Process, and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. and Texas Constitutions. In addition, Helfand bills the city separately to represent former Building Code administrator Brandon Shoaf, who is a witness in the case.
Legal services provided by Lewis Brisbois attorneys are contracted through the Texas Municipal League (TML), but according to a statement posted on social media by Council member Isaac Saldaña, TML is refusing to represent the City in Joiner’s lawsuit.
Earlier this year, the council also voted to terminate the city’s relationship with the Gregg & Gregg law firm and replace long-time city attorney Dick Gregg III.
In another legal dustup, the city received a demand letter for more than $600,000 from property owner Veronica Crow related to the city’s revocation of her approved building plans and conflicting communications from Kemah officials and the city’s attorneys.
The Kemah City Council is scheduled to meet next on December 6.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.