(MTN News-HELENA) If Gov. Steve Bullock wants a taste of what’s on the public mind, he doesn’t have to go far – or even leave his office.
Every day, dozens of Montanans contact the governor, by phone, email and letter, on issues as diverse as bison, convicted murderer Barry Beach, Syrian refugees, carbon regulations or “the homosexual agenda.”
And on each inquiry, the governor’s office provides an answer, after consulting with the governor.
“(The governor is) adamant that everyone gets an answer,” says Citizen’s Advocate John Malia, whose office catalogues and replies to all incoming correspondence to the governor. “These people are looking for an answer.
“It’s not always the answer that they want to hear. … Good or bad, we make sure they get some kind of closure on their issue.”
In the past five months, about 5,500 people contacted the governor’s office. Most of those – 80 percent – used email, 13 percent used the telephone, 7 percent wrote a letter and a lonely two let their thoughts be known in person, dropping in at the Capitol in Helena.
The governor’s office has contact links online at www.governor.mt.gov. People also call his main line directly (444-3111) or the Citizen’s Advocate toll-free number (1-800-332-2272).
Malia’s office catalogues each inquiry by subject and whether it’s pro or con on the issue. Each week, Malia or his assistant, Tyler Campbell, meet with the governor to brief him on what people are saying.
The biggest surge of correspondence the past five months focused on Syrian refugees, the week after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris by ISIS-linked terrorists.
More than 2,200 calls and emails came into the office that week, with 80 percent saying they didn’t want or had concerns about Syrian refugees coming to Montana.
Campbell said most callers weren’t upset with Bullock – who said he wouldn’t categorically reject Syrians coming to Montana – but, rather, were concerned and had questions.
“The majority of folks who called … they were just scared about the whole idea,” Campbell said. “I think a lot of it was driven by the fear of the unknown. There was not a lot of knowledge about the refugee process in general.”
The rush of calls about Syrian refugees are what the office calls “organic,” meaning they probably came spontaneously, from people calling or emailing on their own.
Yet some contacts are dubbed “non-organic,” generated by a specific group directing people to call on a specific issue.
For example, in October, the office received 28 contacts from parents against “teaching transgender identity in school.” The contacts were form letters generated by the conservative group, Concerned Women for America, and signed by Montana parents, objecting to what they called advancement in public schools of the “homosexual agenda.”
Campbell said the letters apparently had been prompted by issues in Great Falls and Kalispell schools, and that governor told the parents to contact the local school board.
The Obama administration’s clean power plan, which requires Montana to reduce carbon emissions by 47 percent by 2030, drew more than 750 comments (62 for, 38 percent against the plan), and some 200 people contacted Bullock about convict Barry Beach, whom Bullock granted clemency on Nov. 20.
Nearly all of the Beach letters, calls and emails supported his clemency.
A proposed copper mine near the iconic Smith River east of Helena also elicited nearly 450 comments – all of them opposing the mine, which has just begun its permitting process.
Not all of the calls are opinions expressed on issues before the governor, the state or the nation. Some involve citizens seeking help from a state agency, such as a problem with an unemployment claim.
“If it’s a simple fix, I get hold of the person (who can help) and tell them to call the person back,” Malia said. “We kind of help folks navigate state government, if there are some specific issues, where they are hitting a road block and not getting an answer.”
Malia and Campbell said the main function of their office is customer service.
“I have hundreds of reminders on my computer every week, to call someone,” Campbell said.
And whatever goes out of the office, the governor generally sees it, knows about it, or, in the case of a letter, signs it himself, Malia said.
“Everything that comes out of here, he sees and signs off on it,” Malia said. “He’ll hand-sign the letters that go out.”
Reporter: Mike Dennison