In what evolved into a heated debate over hate speech and the separation of church and state, community members packed board chambers Tuesday morning to weigh in on the appointment of Valley Springs resident Trent Fiorino, a local pastor, as the new planning commissioner for District 1.
Allegations of Fiorino making homophobic Facebook posts consumed the better part of an hour of public comment, though he was eventually appointed on a 3-2 vote, led by District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli, District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills and District 5 Supervisor Benjamin Stopper.
The role of the planning commission is to hold public hearings and make decisions and recommendations on land-use matters, including the General Plan, zone changes, subdivisions, divisions of land, use permits, reclamation plans and similar items. It also serves as the administrative hearing board for the Code Compliance Unit, assessing zoning violations, illegal camping and building without permits.
District 1 includes the communities Circle XX, San Andreas, Valley Springs, Campo Seco, La Contenta, Camanche, Burson and Wallace.
During public comment, members of the public said they feared that Fiorino’s prejudices – based on alleged homophobic online comments and for some, his position against commercial cannabis cultivation – would cloud his judgement as a planning commisioner.
“It is 2019, and the fact that I have to stand up here and have this issue is disgusting,” said Tri-County LGBT Alliance Founder Sean Lewis, choking back tears. “There is nothing wrong with me … I come in front of you as a human being and citizen of this county that I love so much to ask you to make the right choice today and give human beings the respect they deserve.”
Andrea Vader, a founding member of the Tri-County LGBT Alliance, told the board “It would be morally and fiscally irresponsible to appoint someone who would most certainly bring about discrimination and harassment in his wake, while representing our county.”
“In his eyes, in his deeply held religious beliefs, we not only commit sin, we are sin, simply by being who we are,” she said. “To him, we are no different than murderers. If he would not be capable of sitting on a jury, he should also not be considered capable of representing Calaveras County.”
Tim McDonald, a district 1 resident, told board members he “didn’t understand” how Fiorino could keep his personal biases out of his work on the planning commission, with reference to alleged homophobic comments and his position on cannabis cultivation.
“I know that I do not want this man as our representative on the planning commission,” he said. “He’s been very clear that he’s biased on cannabis ... so I don’t understand how he can be put in a position to make those decisions. Some are saying, ‘well he can just leave that behind.’ I don’t buy it. If he’s preaching it from the pulpit and he’s putting it out on media ... I don’t think he can do it.”
Comments in support of Fiorino occupied a significant portion of public comment as well.
Angels Camp resident Susan Morris voiced her support for Fiorino, calling him “respectful to all” in her experiences with him in board meetings.
Aurora Weatherby, a District 5 resident, called the remarks toward Fiorino a “hatchet job” and a “political hit.”
“Yes, he’s against marijuana, but I’ve heard many things about how he projects his values on other people,” she said. “I haven’t seen that with Trent.”
When given the opportunity, Fiorino defended his comments, and told LGBT community members in the room that he “loves everybody.”
“I’ve been attacked because of a post I had on my facebook page … it was in defense of a pastor who lost his job. I’d like to make a comment to the LGBT community, because a lot of them are here. I love everybody. I do believe the bible, and I don’t want to go into a lot of that in detail because I don’t think it belongs in here ...”
In detailing his reasons for appointing Fiorino, Tofanelli said that Fiorino “has assured me that he will not have any bias in his decisions, and will deal with what’s in front of him only.” Tofanelli added that any decision the planning commission makes can be appealed and brought to the board for review.
Sharon Romano, the alternative applicant, ran against Tofanelli in the supervisorial race for District 1 in 2016, and led a recall campaign against him, based on discussions in the meeting.
“I find it very hard to nominate somebody that has openly ran against me … Had that not happened I would make some considerations for it,” Tofanelli said.
In defense of Tofanelli’s choice, Stopper shared his own experience sitting on the planning commission in 2016. He was “very opinionated” when first appointed, but eventually “learned (his) objectivity there.”
Merita Callaway, the supervisor for District 3, said she could not support the appointment, stating that she “wants candidates that will represent the diversity of people and viewpoints that exist in Calaveras County.”
District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi was in agreement.
“This is not a religious issue in my opinion, it is an issue about the ability to fairly adjudicate disputes between individuals and county code and policies put forward by this board, and I don’t believe Trent can do that based on his past public statements,” Garamendi said.
Fiorino’s term ends Dec. 31, 2020.
This article was update June 14 at 4 p.m. to include a public comment made by District 1 resident Tim McDonald.