Bryce Bennett, Democratic candidate for secretary of state, hit the road recently to discuss the business services offered by the department online and how it could be improved.

He said he heard a lot during a “Big Sky Business Tour” stop in Helena on Friday, in between meetings in Butte and Great Falls. Bennett met with three people from the business community who described the current website as problematic, confusing and frustrating.

Bennett is running for office against Republican Christi Jacobsen, who now serves as deputy director of the department. Current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has touted improvements to business services as one of his accomplishments of four years in office. 

Riley Tubbs, owner of Ten Mile Creek Brewery, said when he started his business in 2015, prior to the current administration, he was 24 and he and his business partners “needed all the help we could get.” He said he found the system then easy to navigate and staff helpful. He said it feels a little more distant these days.

Bennett said, if elected Nov. 3, he would set up a business advisory council to get feedback on how service could be improved.

“It makes perfect sense to me to have those people in the room,” Bennett said, “rather than just taking guesses.”

The office serves as the state’s chief elections officer. The secretary of state also maintains the official records of the executive branch and Legislature. The office also oversees records of businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Jacobsen said during a televised debate in mid-September hosted by MTN News that the current administration has downsized office staff by one-third and made savings. 

She said the office has become more efficient in answering calls from business, cutting the time from two hours to three minutes or less. She said businesses can now register 24/7 and the business registry has been modernized.

Bennett disagreed and unveiled a business plan that calls for making the secretary of state’s office a “one-stop shop” for small businesses that provides a “clear roadmap” that businesses need to take. It also calls for cutting bureaucracy, creating a business council and helping people who cannot file electronically.

It also calls for improving the website.

Brie Harrington, owner of the Painted Pot, said Friday when she first started using the system it was so easy that she never gave it much thought and often got reminders online as when licensing was due. 

She said the website changed and became hard to navigate.

Bennett said he has heard several comments from people that the website is constantly changing. He said the department should make sure it is functioning well, but then leave it alone.

“When I first started this campaign I never thought I’d be spending so much time talking about a website,” Bennett said.

Shalon Hastings, previous owner of Taco del Sol and The Hub coffee shop, said she found the changes to have created an “infuriating process” and it shouldn’t have been that way.

Tubbs said he would like some assurances from the state that when he fills out the forms online that he has done it correctly and is “solid” with officials.

Bennett, now serving as a state senator from Missoula, said he found it “off-putting” that Stapleton has sent out emails or used the site for “political grandstanding.”

The people who met with Bennett in Helena said they believed the department’s staff knew what is was doing, but needed better leadership.

Stapleton on Sunday posted an email saying the business services division “continues to help commerce thrive and provide immaculate customer service.”

“Business Services has made immaculate customer service a cornerstone of each day,” he wrote. “Whether talking to customers, replying to emails, or working with other agency partners, timely, friendly, and knowledgeable information is the goal.”

Stapleton also noted the division has built partnerships with other agencies and states to assist citizens with easier and more efficient filings, as well as sharing expertise with Montana notaries and notaries from all over the United States.  

Reporter Phil Drake is our eye on the state capitol. For tips, suggestions or comment, he can be reached at 406-231-9021 or [email protected] To support his work, subscribe today and get a special offer.

Read or Share this story: