DES Director Timothy Jeffries

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The director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security talks about his goals for the agency that oversees Arizona’s safety net system.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll speak with the head of the department of economic security. Also tonight, the story of a hip replacement patient who rode his bike across the country. And we'll see how a local company is making new forms of ancient building materials. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The nonprofit group Public Integrity Alliance announced today that it plans to seek corruption charges against Arizona Corporation Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith. The group wants the justice department to investigate Bitter Smith's activities as a telecommunications lobbyist, claiming that Bitter Smith violated a statute known as Honest Services Fraud, the same law used to successfully prosecute former Arizona congressman Rick Renzi. Bitter Smith says there's no basis for the complaint and that she does not lobby for any of the companies she regulates on the commission. Timothy Jeffries was appointed director of the Arizona department of economic security earlier this year by Governor Doug Ducey. DES no longer oversees child abuse cases, but the department still runs a number of services considered part of Arizona's safety net. Joining us now is DES director Timothy Jeffries. Can I call you Tim?

TIM JEFFRIES: You sure can.

TED SIMONS: Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

TIM JEFFRIES: Thank you so much sir.

TED SIMONS: It's good to have you. There's so much to talk about, especially with the position, especially you, but what attracted you to the job?

TIM JEFFRIES: Well, Governor Ducey is a compelling public servant and I was very humbled and flattered that he would be interested in me joining this team. And, although there are discussions about different agencies, I knew based on where I've come from in life that the department of economic security was the agency, the only agency, that I could or should lead.

TED SIMONS: What is it about your background that told you that DES was it?

TIM JEFFRIES: My story is very similar to many Arizonans, many Americans. Broken family, domestic chaos, father was an alcoholic, my two brothers had troubles, big brother had learning disabilities, he was always bullied. In the end, he was homeless. Prior to his horrific murder. So it is a story of suffering that resonates with thousands of colleagues at DES.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. And obviously, that's a compelling background, you could do the whole show on just how you've gotten to where you are. But as far as service background, this position, some folks say you need a lot of it. Do you have a lot of it?

TIM JEFFRIES: I have never served government in this capacity, nor have I ever led a venture this significant. But I was certain, am certain, that I could shepherd it well based on where I come from personally, thrown to the mix I've been blessed with some education and some leadership experiences that are germane but honestly what resonates the most with the 7,600 colleagues at DES is that I've suffered in life just like them, just like the 2.2 million folks we serve.

TED SIMONS: As far as challenges, facing DES, what are they and what did you find when you took over?

TIM JEFFRIES: Well, as you know far better than I, for years, a very black cloud hovered over DES because CPS, now DCS, was a part of DES. And kids were literally dying under the banner of DES and for more of this century, no one was interested in any of the good news coming from different elements of DES, because kids were dying. So with DCS out as a separate agency, I've been very blessed to learn about, to give voice to, many of the great things that these colleagues are doing every day for those in need.

TED SIMONS: I want to get to exactly how you plan on moving the agency forward.

TIM JEFFRIES: Sure.

TED SIMONS: But it's been reported widely that you've come in and you've fired 168, whatever it is, some odd people, you call them bullies, you called them liars and slackers. What's that all about?

TIM JEFFRIES: In my ardent some would say strident opinion, work is a privilege, service is a grace, service to one's government is a blessing and the opportunity to serve the poor is a noble charge and it would be fair to say there was a bit of entitlement that needed to be eradicated and what I can tell you is of the folks we've exited, if you were privy to the information that I and the other leaders in human resources were privy to, you would have fairly clear minded opinions, too.

TED SIMONS: I would say who actually decided these were bullies, liars and slackers?

TIM JEFFRIES: I was not personally involved in all 172 dismissals. We have built an outstanding leadership team. My deputies, the assistant directors, the deputy assistant directors, the administrators, the deputy administrators. The five levels of leadership of DES. And armed with the values of what we call the new DES, they're taking action where they deem it appropriate to ensure that our workforce is as humble, blessed and focused on who we need to serve every day.

TED SIMONS: As far as those who were let go, what kind of positions did they hold and have those positions been filled?

TIM JEFFRIES: All levels of the agency have been subject to the same level of scrutiny. It doesn't mean we've eradicated every issue that needs to be dealt with. It's a massive agency, but it's all levels and I will tell you quite honestly when we release one of the more egregious bullies and there have been some, typically I receive quite a few thank you, notes from folks.

TED SIMONS: But with that in mind, again, I imagine your agency needs all the help it can get, 172 odd people, that's a lot of folks to lose. Are you getting some people filling those positions?

TIM JEFFRIES: Critical positions are refilled but whenever there's a departure, whether it's our decision or someone's volition, it's an opportunity to look at structure, to make sure we're optimizing structure. So some positions have been filled as is, others have been recrafted, some are unfilled, it's a mix.

TED SIMONS: You know, many reports about you say you're a cheerleader, you're rahing the troops and you have a style about yourself and you're personable in a variety of ways. However, some folks are saying with all this talk of bullies, liars and slackers and the firings that are going on that there could possibly be a workplace of fear. Are you concerned about that?

TIM JEFFRIES: One, I was a cheerleader in high school and some would say a cheerleader in college, even though I played sports, as well. I love people. I always see goodness in people. I always hope and believe in the best in people. I am rightfully setting high standards for DES in noble service to the governor. We have values in the agency and I have approached all our colleagues with the notion that the values of the agency are nonnegotiable. There's no right way to do the wrong thing. So is there fear? Well, I guess if you're a bully, there might be some fear. If you're sexually harassing someone, there might be some fear. If you still make racist jokes there might be some fear and I'm very comfortable with those types of people having fear.

TED SIMONS: Any of those people let go filed suit?

TIM JEFFRIES: There have been no suits.

TED SIMONS: No suits, okay. All right. I want to ask you about temporary assistance to needy families. That has been cut by the legislature and your boss and I talked to your boss last night on the air about this and he said he wants to make sure people don't become too dependent, want to get jobs, get back out there.

TIM JEFFRIES: Sure.

TED SIMONS: But the goal of TANF is to help kids by helping their parents get jobs. Some folks say that cutting this program, some states have five-year caps on it, our cap is now one year. Is that a good thing for Arizona? Is that a good thing for these families and kids?

TIM JEFFRIES: Well, it is a humble social safety net to be sure. And in my opinion it's wrong for the media to think the governor, his administration, let alone the majorities in the house and the Senate are kicking 1,600 families to the street because that's far from the truth. More often than not the families that come to us, the citizens that come to our lobbies, they need more than one service. So yes, we estimate 1,600 families will no longer receive TANF come the midpoint of the summer but that doesn't mean there aren't still services available to those families. Throw into the mix we've already built a plan that will have a -- will be regularly engaging these families to help them what we would all hope, which is that they get to self-sufficiency. In my opinion, particularly coming from where I came from, a job is a great anti-poverty program. A job is a great pro-family program. There's nothing like a good man with a job.

TED SIMONS: Understood. But those who decry the move --

TIM JEFFRIES: Right.

TED SIMONS: Say this was meant to replace welfare to begin with, A., a form of welfare. And one year just simply, especially when you're dealing with folks living in poverty and have a whole variety of other issues, that's just not enough time to get families back on their feet again. Is that a valid argument?

TIM JEFFRIES: Well, having come from poverty, I mean when my parents were married, we didn't have much money. When my mother finally mustered the courage to divorce my father, we had no money. So I understand and appreciate a year and how short that is. And I agree, it is short. And so DES is working now in engaging those families with the mindset you don't wait until they're off. You engage them now. And hopefully make a difference in their lives so they can make a difference for those they care for.

TED SIMONS: Last question, you've been on the job for a while. What do you have planned in the future? What do we expect to see from DES? How are you changing this agency?

TIM JEFFRIES: I've been on the job, I call it a vocation, 247 days, I count my tenure by days, because to the poor every day matters, and my intent partnered with leadership, partnered with our beautiful thousands, is to make sure DES is the very best agency it can and should be. And ultimately is viewed as one of the best agencies in the state if not one of the best agencies of its kind in the country.

TED SIMONS: Do you think you're heading there?

TIM JEFFRIES: Yes.

TED SIMONS: It's good to have you here, nice to meet you, thanks for joining us.

TIM JEFFRIES: Thank you so much.

Timothy Jeffries: Director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security

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