It was quite apparent from the beginning of Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting that the vote on Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ nomination of Phyllis Aluko to head the Public Defender’s office was merely a formality.

Aluko, who had been the deputy assistant public defender and acting chief, was Harris’ choice to fill the vacancy left by retiring Stephen Bush.

The vote for Aluko, the first African-American woman confirmed for the position, was unanimous. It came during a session in which commissioners gave third-reading approval of a Memphis and Shelby County pre-kindergarten ordinance that calls for the appointment of a fiscal agent to manage funding for the future pre-K expansion.

In addition, commissioners embraced by majority vote a resolution backing a $15 minimum wage for the county’s public-sector employees.

In remarks prior to the vote on Aluko’s nomination, Harris said she was “absolutely the right person for the job.”

“We need someone who is mission-driven and committed to serving,” he said. “After working in the public defender’s office for 25 years, it is fitting that Phyllis Aluko is poised to take the top job. I feel that she is interested in justice being served for everyone.”

Aluko offered a brief history lesson before her confirmation vote, noting that women have been at the forefront of the public defender system from the beginning.

“Clara Foltz was the first woman to practice law in the state of California,” said Aluko. “She advocated for a public defender’s office to counterbalance the public prosecutor’s office. Ms. Foltz felt they should be paid out of the same fund. Because of her efforts, the first public defender’s office was opened in San Francisco in 1913.”

Aluko said Foltz fought to strike down the ordinance that only allowed “white males” to practice law in the state of California.

“If confirmed today, I promise to do my best to continue to promote the kind of client-centered representation that is critical to ensuring due process for every client, for every case,” said Aluko, who started in the public defender’s office as a volunteer. She was first woman and the first African American to serve as supervisor of the appellate team in the public defender’s office.

IN OTHER ACTION

The vote on the pre-K ordinance was unanimous and was considered a key step in the city-county push toward the goal of 90 percent “kindergarten-ready” by 2025. An expiring federal grant had put about 1,000 pre-K seats in jeopardy. Officials are working on pulling together about $16 million annually, including funds to add 1,100 seats over a three-year span.

Educators, parents and community supporters cheered the commission’s move after votes appeared one by one on digital screens. Prior to the vote, remarks were made by parents, pre-K teachers, and four-year-old Nia Smith, along with her mother, Dione Smith.

Nia Smith, 4, with her mother, Dione Smith. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Nia squealed with excitement into the microphone before saying, “I love my school, I love my friends, and I love my spindle box (a classroom tool to help children learn to count).”

Harris said it was important that when children begin kindergarten, they should be ready to learn.

“Universal pre-K will change the projectory of our children’s lives for years to come. We want to provide high-quality pre-K classrooms. The work is so important in early literacy.”

Commissioner Mark Billingsley said universal pre-K was “a long time coming. …  It is important to increase access to pre-K, especially to the disadvantaged and children of color.”

Minimum-wage vote

The resolution that garnered the commission’s support for a $15 minimum wage for all public-sector county employees reflected a party-line divide.

The eight Democratic Party commissioners backed the measure. Four Republican Party members – Billingsley, David Bradford, Amber Mills and Mick Wright opposed resolution.

Brandon Morrison abstained, calling the controlling of wages “a slippery slope.” Morrison also said she was not convinced that poverty could be eliminated by a set minimum wage.