SUN CITY CENTER — David Brown has strong feelings about right and wrong. When he suspects something is amiss, he's not afraid to attack the powers that be. And when something piques his interest, he grabs on like a vice grip.
Elected officials have called him a burr in the saddle of bureaucrats. His supporters praise him for saving them thousands of dollars. And his critics say he often overstates the dangers and severity of the issues he champions.
Brown, 71, takes it all in stride. A well-known local gadfly, he's a stickler for water issues, and he pursues justice by any means necessary, usually by tackling — verbally — government officials.
Brown says he is just doing his best to make things right even if it means ruffling feathers.
He recently won a state Senate Medallion Award of Excellence from Sen. Ronda Storms for his efforts. Last year, county commissioners gave him a Moral Courage award.
Thanks to Brown, residents throughout Hillsborough County have seen a reduction in their flood insurance costs. Many have saved thousands of dollars.
Brown counts Bill Frohlich among the people he has helped.
"We were having to pay $830 a year to State Farm, and we were out of the flood zone completely," said Frohlich, who lives in Sun City Center. "My neighbors across the street and next door didn't have to pay anything."
In 2005 when the county began redrawing its flood maps, Frohlich asked Brown check into the situation and see why he had to pay for flood insurance and his neighbors didn't have to purchase the extra insurance.
"I knew if he (Brown) got interested in a project he would run with it," Frohlich said.
Brown began studying homes in the area and learned that some homeowners had to pay for flood insurance while others didn't. He discovered that while some back yards were susceptible to flooding, the homes were not.
So Brown took his findings to the county.
"The people who updated the flood maps, surveyors and developers listened to my comments" Brown said. "I let them know that FEMA had done a dreadful drawing. So a new survey from the air was done, and they gave it to FEMA."
The result? More than 1,000 people were able to get out of paying for flood insurance in Sun City Center and others save anywhere from $200 to $1,500, Brown said.
A Sun City Center resident for 16 years, Brown and his wife Jean came from Maryland after he retired from Random House Publishing, where he worked as a computer programmer.
When Brown moved to the retirement community, he thought he would be stringing beads and playing shuffleboard for the rest of his life.
"It hasn't turned out that way," he said.
After Brown completed the flood plan project, he started checking into backflow valves. These valves are above-the- ground brass fixtures that are intended to protect the drinking water supply from being contaminated by water from ponds, lakes or the shallow wells some homeowners use for irrigation. He says they are not only unsightly but can easily be stolen or contaminated.
Now, Brown crusades against the $600 valves, which he contends are dangerous.
"Because I spoke out about how vulnerable the valves are and could be used as a terrorist target, county and state officials turned me in to Johnny Law," said Brown, "I got an unannounced visit from the FBI and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy in charge of terrorism."
Professorial in his explanations, Brown said he gave the law enforcement officials a demonstration. Using colored water in a nearby valve, he showed them how easily contaminants could enter the valves. Once he finished, the visitors left him alone.
Undaunted by his tango with the law, Brown was just getting started.
He began traversing the state attending meetings held by the Department of Environmental Protection. At each stop, from Tallahassee to West Palm Beach, he railed against above-ground backflow valves.
Thanks to Brown, the department revised the rules that required new backflow valves, and the county plans to install water meters in lieu of the valves.
Eugene Henry, Hillsborough County's hazard mitigation manager, describes Brown as a strong advocate for the community.
"Sun City Center greatly appreciates the work he does," Henry said.
Brown praises his wife for putting up with all his shenanigans. He has turned their home into a workshop, stacking piles of papers, maps, models and plumbing parts that are the artifacts of his crusades. His wife doesn't seem to mind and rarely complains about the thousands of dollars he has spent traveling the state in his quest.
"She understands that the money bought me the priceless ability to lay my head down at night, knowing I did the right thing," Brown said.
Jean Brown said her husband's eccentricities are part of the package. His work makes her proud.
"We have great piles of things (around the house), and our only worry is they might fall over and kill the cat," she said. "Our life has been interesting."
When he's not mulling over water-related issues, David Brown enjoys playing practical jokes, his wife said. When they lived in Maryland, a neighbor had a vegetable garden and looked forward to the ripening produce.
"One night my husband tied ripe tomatoes on the plants," she said. "Our neighbor was so excited until he looked up close and discovered my husband's joke."
A hobbyist, who approaches his free time with as much drive as his causes, Brown fancies himself a bit of an inventor. For the last 40 years, he has been trying to invent the perpetual motion machine.
"Actually, trying to invent perpetual motion and fighting the government have a lot in common," Brown said. "People have been doing it for centuries. It is very frustrating. It can be expensive and time consuming, but there is always the hope one will succeed."
Times archives were used in this report. Michelle Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.