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Vancouver ponders how to handle growing number of freedom-of-information requests

Faced with a deluge of freedom-of-information requests at Vancouver city hall since Mayor Gregor Robertson's Vision Vancouver team took office, the city is trying to figure out a new way to handle them.

City manager Penny Ballem said that the just-announced departure of freedom of information officer Paul Hancock for another job is prompting a rethink of how to deal with the more than 400 requests the city gets every year.

"It's not just the number. The complexity has gone up significantly," said Ms. Ballem. "People are FOI'ing contracts that are a foot deep. And we're going into a long year when I anticipate we'll be very busy."

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That's the period leading to the next civic election.

Since the 2008 election, Mr. Hancock, a lawyer who has been FOI officer since 1998, has had requests from a proliferating number of bloggers on city politics, from new residents' groups, and from mainstream media journalists who have become more interested in civic issues because of Olympic-village problems and staff departures.

The officer used to receive about 260 requests a year.

The increase has led to disputes. A sign of the testier times: The City of Vancouver didn't appear at all in the 2007-08 annual report from B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which shows statistics on which institutions have generated the most requests for reviews of their decisions.

The next year, the city was seventh on the list, with 10 requests for review, though well behind ICBC at 145.

The past year, the city tied for fourth with the solicitor-general's ministry.

The political blog, run by two former political staffers for previous mayor Sam Sullivan who are energetic filers of FOI requests, has made the case several times that the city is becoming more obstructionist about attempts to get information through FOI requests.

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Ms. Ballem said that's not true.

"We've issued more stuff than has ever been issued. The volume has doubled in what's gone out the door."

But she said she and city clerk Marg Coulson are trying to decide who to hire next and how to reorganize when Mr. Hancock leaves for his new job on Nov. 19, so his replacement can respond to requests faster.

Ms. Ballem said it's unusual to have a lawyer like Mr. Hancock as an FOI officer. She and Ms. Coulson have discussed whether the processing could be speeded up with a non-lawyer who would send any files that need legal scrutiny to the city's legal counsel.

She's also looking at whether the department might need extra help during the election year, when the number of requests might go up even more.

Ms. Ballem said Mr. Hancock is leaving for a "wonderful opportunity" elsewhere. "He has other interests around FOI that will be a great fit there."

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Mr. Hancock, who generally avoids publicity when possible, did not respond to e-mails and phone calls about his reasons for leaving. Sources say he is going to the University of British Columbia.

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