A question of safety in Kemah

February 14, 2011 7:11:50 PM PST
Now an update on the Kemah investigation: There have been complaints the city of Kemah is selectively enforcing safety codes.

In our story Friday night, we reported former mayor Bill King did not have an occupancy permit for a property he rents out for events and vacation rentals. At the time of our interview with Kemah's building official, Mr. King did not have an occupancy permit, but his property was approved after our interview with the Kemah official and prior to our broadcast. We regret the error. Mr. King says he was told the delay was due to a backlog of applications.

The former mayor wanted us to tell you that he never has asked for and doesn't believe he recieved special treatment from the city and that accusations from his neighbors are outrageously false.

A question of safety in Kemah

Serious allegations that some of the places you eat and sleep in when you visit Kemah don't have required safety permits. And the mayor may be one of the guys breaking the rules.

Fire inspections, required building permits, proof your business has been flood proofed. The question in Kemah tonight: Is there selective enforcement? And is the mayor getting breaks other folks don't?

Drive across the bridge into Kemah and one of the very first places you'll see to eat and drink is the Swamp Shack. It was opened last year.

When we asked if that restaurant should be open for business, Kemah Mayor Matt Wiggins replied, "Absolutely."

We asked because if you go to Kemah City Hall, you won't find the required city permit for the place to be open for business.

"The reason you have inspections is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public," said Jack Fryday, Kemah building official.

But the city of Kemah is like most -- it requires a full occupancy inspection by law before a place is opened for business by both a building inspector and a fire marshal. It's supposed to be the only way to get this certificate.

"I know Jack Fryday has inspected that property numerous times," said Mayor Wiggins. "I also know that Jack Friday would not let a building that was inherently unsafe be occupied in the city of Kemah."

But Kemah's mayor doesn't think the permit is all that important.

"So a piece of paper hanging on the wall protects people?" Mayor Wiggins said.

Maybe that explains why this Kemah bed and breakfast Seaside Inn was repaired after Hurricane Ike and allowed to reopen without one.

When we asked if a bed and breakfast should be operating without a proper occupancy permit, Jack Fryday replied, "Probably not."

You know who owns it? The mayor does.

When we asked him if a place should be sleeping people without a fire inspection, the mayor said, "Absolutely not."

Yet we can't find any record the Seaside Inn was inspected for fire safety since it was repaired after the hurricane. And the new fire marshal says he hasn't inspected any of the bed and breakfasts.

Wayne Dolcefino: Were there places that weren't inspected?
Larry Suniga: Yes.
Dolcefino: That opened?
Suniga: Yes.
Dolcefino: Places where people eat?
Suniga: Yes.
Dolcefino: Places where people sleep?
Suniga: Yes.

Larry Suniga is the fired former fire marshal of Kemah.

When we asked Suniga if in his view Wiggins was compromising safety, Suniga responded, "Correct."

In a later lawsuit, Suniga claims Wiggins didn't want his places to get inspected.

"I don't know if you'd call that a special favor. He certainly didn't want me looking," said Suniga.

"He's just making all that up?" we asked Wiggins.

"He's making it all up. Absolutely, he is," said Mayor Wiggins about Suniga.

He says the fire marshal must have thought his bed and breakfasts were safe because he stayed there for free a lot.

"I know the fire marshal visited all my bed and breakfasts because he spent 30 to 40 nights in them the last couple of years," Mayor Wiggins said.

Suniga does not deny some free stays before the storm, but insists the mayor wanted to operate without fire inspections.

"I look around too much, I ask too many darn questions, and it comes down to, 'Hey, I don't want you there," Suniga said.

Suniga says he told his story to the FBI late last year.

"How do you ensure that somebody is not going to get hurt in a building that hasn't been inspected?" Suniga asked.

The mayor has owned a bed and breakfast at 7th St. and Bay Ave. for years. It got a new certificate of occupancy last year, but one problem -- we couldn't find the required fire inspection.

"Well, there apparently is no written record," said Fryday.

Architect Carl Joiner has been fighting his own battle with the guy next door -- a house now listed as a place for weddings and other big events.

"We've had loud, 200 people events. I call it the party palace next door," said his wife, Colene Joiner.

And the Joiners have been crying foul.

"It's very stressful. We can't have peace in our home," said Colene Joiner.

How would you like to have strobe lights and loud music as your next door neighbor? The neighbor says the noise doesn't violate noise laws.

"The people that are elected to really protect the citizens of Kemah, they are not doing it. They are in it for themselves," said Carl Joiner.

"I don't drive around looking for violations," said Fryday.

The Swamp Shack sits on land owned by Kemah's Judge Mark Foster. Some in Kemah see a pattern of selective enforcement.

"Who's doing the selecting? Well, it's not me," said Fryday. "Does it appear so? Probably."

But to Carl Joiner, it's not just about a noisy neighbor. It's about the city making sure all these places meet safety codes.

"People are coming here and he's putting their lives in jeopardy because he doesn't have the safety things in place for that," said Carl Joiner.

The mayor said, "Carl Joiner has more to sit on than he does to think with."

And Carl Joiner says he's only met the mayor twice.

"So this is his town, and by God, what he wants, he's gonna do. He doesn't care who he runs over or who he hurts," said Carl Joiner.

But the city's administrator claims what we've uncovered is due to a lack of resources, not special treatment. Kemah officials have known for months that we've been examining their inspection records. You know how many fire inspections reports have been done in the last two months? Try none.