San Mateo resident at loggerheads with officials on signs 

Government conspiracies, child abuse, Armageddon and witchcraft may come up for discussion on Tuesday night, as one San Mateo woman’s fight between free speech and city ordinances goes before the City Council.

On Jan. 17, the Community Improvement Commission hearing with Estrella Benavides degraded into a shouting match as the city tried unsuccessfully to discuss her signs, which violate three city ordinances regarding size, total square feet of all signs and the forbidden placement of signs on rooftops.

"It’s very simple in my opinion. We have an ordinance that says you can’t have signs that big, she violated that ordinance, and she feels she doesn’t have to obey that ordinance, and she’s wrong," Councilman John Lee said.

Lee — the council’s liaison to the commission — was present at the Jan. 17 meeting.

While the signs are a collection of scattered sentences and phrases, they talk about Cuba, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and rape, among other topics.

In documents sent to the city, Benavides — who had her lips pierced together with long metal bars to help in her religiously-motivated fasting — also accuses the U.S. government of forcing Scott Peterson to kill his child.

Benavides insists her right to free speech is being denied, although Neighborhood Improvement and Housing Manager Robert Muehlbauer said she would be able to express herself if her signs were within regulation size.

Estrella Benavides’ neighbors first complained to the city in August about the messages scrawled across the roof, garage door and windows of her 1864 Cottage Grove Ave. home. Similar messages were also written on a Lago Street duplex and a Beresford Avenue house in Belmont that she owned, as well as her two cars.

Benavides told The Examiner she was leaving her fate in God’s hands and would not take down her signs, regardless of the financial cost.

Several city officials said they worryabout Benavides’ health, but are bound by city policy to conduct the hearings and give her a chance to speak for her appeal.

"If she wants to at some point raise a defense to the city’s actions that she lacks the capacity to understand, it’s something that would be dealt with at the time," City Attorney Shawn Mason said.

Unless the council overturns the commission’s decision, the city will begin fining her $50 a day on March 20 for a maximum of 100 days. She will also need to pay an administrative fee of $1,829.

"I wish we didn’t have to get to this point. I wish there was a way out of the woods here. I don’t like to have this attention drawn to this type of situation," Muehlbauer said.

The appeal will be heard by the City Council at 7 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers, 330 W. 20th Ave.

jgoldman@examiner.com

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