7 Questions with Tim Gibbs

by The Campaign Workshop

Tim Gibbs

7 Questions with Tim Gibbs

Tim Gibbs has worked in the public policy sphere for more than 20 years, where he helped pass impactful laws at both the municipal and state levels. In the last five years, Gibbs played a critical role in passing over 100 local ordinances, including successfully advocating against the sale of flavored tobacco products within various urban and rural areas of California. Gibbs also has significant ballot initiative experience. One of his successes includes the approval of Proposition 56 in 2016, which increased California's cigarette tax by $2 per pack and had identical increases on e-cigarettes containing nicotine and other tobacco products. 

Why do local ordinances matter? 

Local government is the essence of our democracy. While the state and federal government can seem inaccessible to regular people, local government exists to fix the problems in your own backyard. It is more than just fixing potholes (which is not unimportant to voters by the way). There are many critical issues that local government can address. Those issues can range from police accountability to health issues like tobacco policies to zoning restrictions to housing and homelessness. 

What is the process of passing a local ordinance?

Every city and county are a little different, but the process is fairly straight forward. Usually through citizen feedback, a councilmember brings a problem forward to the rest of the council for consideration. Once the council votes to address a problem, city staff is tasked with crafting an ordinance. This is one of the most critical times to engage with city or county staff. You want to make sure the legal language does what is needed and does not contain loopholes.

How can folks get started in passing a local ordinance?

One of my favorite aspects of local government is how local citizens can impact your community. Getting a meeting with your councilmember is not like getting a meeting with a Member of Congress. They live in that community just like you do. You can run into your councilmember at a coffee shop or grocery store. Their pool of voters is often much smaller than other elected officials so an individual’s concerns carry a lot more weight. So, the first step is simply to talk to your councilmember.

When and why did you become interested in passing local ordinances?

I have been an advocate at the local, state and federal levels. Great ideas that can have a positive impact on the lives of citizens can take years or decades to come to fruition at the state and federal levels. Locally, ordinances can take just a few months from start to finish. The other thing that is compelling about working at the local level is that massive funded opposition campaigns are rare. And, when funded opposition does appear, you can turn it to your advantage. While the footprint of a local law is smaller, the impact can still be large. Local ordinances rarely happen in a vacuum. They are often part of a larger movement. Cities and counties are laboratories of democracy. I have been a part of the tobacco control movement for decades. One of the pillars of the movement is that passing local laws is almost always a precursor to taking the issue on at the state level. People would still be smoking in bars and restaurants if it were not for the passion of local advocates urging local government to protect them from deadly secondhand smoke. 

What are common or potential mistakes people may make in trying to pass local ordinances? 

While local ordinances are much quicker than state and federal legislation, there is still a lot of legwork that goes into passing a local law. The community must buy in. If the perception from a city council is that outside groups are parachuting into a city to pass a law and leave, the chances for success are slim. However, if it can be demonstrated that residents have a real stake in the outcome of a campaign, those voices have a real impact.

What methods or strategies are most effective in helping ordinances get passed?

The answer is plain old hard work. Canvassing neighborhoods has always been an effective strategy. COVID-19 has complicated the logistics of getting volunteers out into neighborhoods, but the tactic will remain important. Neighbors talking to neighbors about why they are taking the time to advocate for an issue that make people’s lives better is almost impossible to replicate digitally. That is not to say that paid media does not have a role to play in local efforts. It is just that paid media is a way to amplify your organic advocacy efforts, not to replace it.

What advice would you give to individuals or groups trying to pass local ordinances when a large organization or company is spending millions of dollars to oppose it? 

While no one wants the opposition to start spending millions of dollars against you, there is a great opportunity to turn their financial advantage against them.  This is especially true when tobacco companies start spending big on local ordinances. Local elected officials are not used to having large multi-national corporations spending millions of dollars to influence their decisions. Local residents are often outraged that an out of state company is trying to buy the votes of their councilmembers. Advocates should be screaming from the rafters to friends and neighbors about who is funding the opposition effort. 

How has Covid-19 affected outreach around ballot initiatives and ordinances?

Just like any other form of advocacy, COVID-19 has complicated local organizing efforts. In some ways technology has made it easier to connect with elected officials through platforms like Zoom. However, you can’t replicate the direct connection you get with your locally elected councilmember when you run into them in your community.

Are there any books that you have read recently (preferably about advocacy or community organizing) that you would recommend?

Sidewalk Strategies: A Practical Guide For Organizers and Activists by Larry Tramutola.
Currently, Gibbs runs a public affairs consulting firm and can be reached at here