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Legacies in Polk Government Leadership

The Board of County Commissioners Then…

The size and makeup of the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) has evolved since Polk County’s establishment in 1861. Did you know that the first ever BoCC only had four commissioners? William S. Harris, Isaac Waters, James Hamilton and Joseph Mizell were elected by residents in three voting districts: Fort Fraser, Fort Meade and Socrum. They convened at Mud Lake in the Lakeland Highlands area, which had been chosen by voters as the county seat in the same April 1861 election. The BoCC has since expanded in accordance to changes to the Florida Constitution in 1885, 1900 and 1944.

The Polk County History Center has unveiled a new exhibit exploring the establishment of the Polk County Government. “Legacies in Polk Government Leadership” honors the men and women in county government whose service marked a turning point in the county’s history. The inaugural inductees included the county’s first female commissioner and the county’s first Black commissioner. Their legacies were recognized on March 28, 2024, in a special ceremony at the Polk County History Center.

Brenda Taylor (1943-2024)

Brenda Taylor, District 1 commissioner, sitting at her desk in her officeThe first honoree inducted into the “Legacies in Polk Government Leadership” exhibit was Brenda Taylor, the first woman to be elected to the Polk County BoCC. Did she have any political experience? No. Her professional experience included working as an office manager for a large department store chain and as a secretary and account ant for her husband’s firm, Taylor Engineering and Surveying in Lakeland.

Taylor was the last candidate to submit her application to enter the commission race that year. The only campaign financial contribution that she reported was the $1608 she had paid out of her own pocket to satisfy the qualifying fee.

In September 1976, she beat incumbent District 1 Commissioner Floyd Woods, earning 21,918 votes to his 16,269 votes.

During her eight years as commissioner, Taylor focused on economic development and improved the quality of life in the county. Her impact included the implementation of an animal control ordinance, which upgraded the Animal Control Department. She was also involved in shortening the process for zoning cases and building relationships which led to the donation of Christina Park to the county.

Brenda Taylor posing next to her 1968 Jaguar XKE sports car, Tampa Tribune photo by Larry AlspaughTaylor said she “didn’t go into office making big promises. I offered (voters) my full-time service. I said that I would serve with honesty and integrity, and I’ve given them what they asked for.”

After her time on the commission, Taylor continued to serve Polk County as a part-time employee, supporting the development of road projects by negotiating with property owners for right-of-way . In 1985, she was hired by the first director of the Economic Development Council of Polk County, now the Central Florida Development Council. For 21 years, she successfully built relationships with businesses and employers to attract them to Polk County.

Taylor passed away in January 2024. Read the full story of her successes in Polk County, including her early years, her time on the commission and her retirement, as told through photos and historical newspaper articles, by visiting the Polk County History Center’s digital archive.

Charles Richardson

Charles Richardson Sr. (1949-2003)

Charles Richardson Sr., the first Black Polk County resident to be elected to the BoCC, was also honored on March 28 and inducted into the “Legacies in Polk Government Leadership” exhibit.

But Richardson’s impact on Polk County began before his historic election to the BoCC.

Before he was a county commissioner, Richardson served on the City of Winter Haven commission. He only entered the race for city commissioner after Ann Darby, the first Black woman elected to serve, stepped down and encouraged Richardson to take an interest. She wanted to see representation from the African American community in local government.

Richardson was also the first director of the Talent Search Program established at at Polk Community College (now Polk State College) in 1998. As the director, Richardson helped economically disadvantaged high school students discover opportunities to improve their lives through college education.

When it came time to run for county commissioner, he did so on a platform of growth management and education. In September 2002, he defeated incumbent Commissioner Bruce Parker to win the District 4 seat, earning 53% of the vote.

Richardson was known among his fellow commissioners as a bridge-builder and always prioritized the quality of life of his residents.

Unfortunately, Richardson was not able to complete his four-year term on the county commission. He passed away from cancer in October 2003, only 11 months into his term. Upon his death, Richardson’s sister, Gloria Washington, told the Orlando Sentinel, “He opened avenues for people of all backgrounds.”

Learn more about Richardson Sr.’s life and accomplishments, as well as his early years as one of the first students to transfer to the Summerlin Institute upon desegregation of the public schools in 1965, at the Polk County History Center’s digital archive.

Charles Richardson campaigning for district four county commissioner

Want to nominate a Polk County legacy?

Like Richardson and Taylor, there are many other individuals who have had an impact in Polk County Government. The Polk County History Center wants to celebrate those legacies.

Recognitions to “Legacies in Polk Government Leadership” happen through nomination from the public with approval by the Polk County Historical Commission.

To begin the process of nominating a legacy honoree, contact the Polk County History Center at (863) 534-4386.

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