Labor unions are the single largest contributor to 2010 candidates for Contra Costa offices, based on results of the first local, online, searchable and sortable campaign finance database.

The Times has converted to an electronic database the paper reports filed by 2010 candidates for Contra Costa County assessor, district attorney, sheriff and two Contra Costa County supervisor seats.

The database also includes contributions to candidates for the 11th Congressional District, California governor and Assembly District 15. State and federal campaign finance data is available online elsewhere but has been compiled at ContraCostaTimes.com for the convenience of readers.

The local data provided on the site, however, is unavailable online anywhere else.

At ContraCostaTimes.com/campaign-finance, readers may search or sort by race, candidate's name, amount and date of contribution, and donor's occupation, employer and hometown.

The Times will expand the database to include candidates for seats in Alameda and Solano counties, regional organizations, city councils, school boards and special districts.

A searchable, sortable database allows voters to see within a few keystrokes who seeks to influence local politics.

In Contra Costa County, unions have contributed $26,375 to local candidates seeking office in 2010.

The vast majority of the money came from the pipe and steamfitter trades, and went to sheriff candidate and Concord police Chief Dave Livingston.

Other details revealed in an analysis of the data include:

  • Retirees are the most generous donors by occupation, followed by homemakers and attorneys.

  • Alameda County district attorney candidate Nancy O'Malley gave $1,500 to her brother and Contra Costa district attorney candidate Dan O'Malley.

  • Longtime homebuilders at Seeno companies and their owners contributed $2,675 to district attorney candidate and Concord Councilman Mark Peterson.

  • Members of the Garaventa family, which owns and operates trash collection operations in Contra Costa County, gave $5,025 to Livingston and $3,350 to Peterson.

  • Congressional District 11 GOP candidate David Harmer, of Dougherty Valley, has a lot of friends in Utah — its residents have sent him $103,000 in contributions, about 13 percent of all his money. The figure includes his run for the 10th district in the 2009 special election and his current campaign in the 11th district.

    Popular Web sites such as OpenSecrets.org, with its plethora of federal campaign finance data, and Cal-Access, the state's database, have for years provided voters with searchable and sortable data.

    But when it comes to city council, county supervisor or school board candidates, most counties and other local governments lag far behind the digital age.

    Most blame a lack of money, though the process is relatively cheap these days.

    Only 16 California counties, including Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara, post images, or PDFs, of campaign reports.

    Some cities put their reports online, too, including Richmond, Brentwood, Benicia and Pleasanton. San Francisco offers an exhaustive site with disclosures of candidates, lobbyists, campaign consultants, statements of economic interest and gifts.

    The local sites offer basic search features but all require viewers to read digitized images of original documents; none convert the contents into a sortable database.

    Online disclosure is a vast improvement over an ink-and-paper system but the posting of PDFs versus the creation of a true database is the "difference between a horse-drawn carriage and a Maserati," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics and publisher of OpenSecrets.org. "Scanning a paper document, creating a PDF and posting it online creates a lot of pages, which is not efficient if you are looking for patterns or if you want to find out if John Smith at 321 Elm St. donated money hither and yon."

    Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters Steve Weir is all for a technological upgrade but says he can't afford it.

    A system similar to Cal-Access would cost the county an estimated $30,000 a year after installation and training, and all candidates would have to file electronically.

    For now, Weir's staff is negotiating a roughly $2,250-a-year contract with a private vendor to scan and post images of campaign finance reports. He hopes to start posting reports in May.

    Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Contact her at lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics. Daniel Willis compiled the campaign finance database. Contact him at 925-977-8465 or dwillis@bayareanewsgroup.com.

    Follow the money
  • What is it? A sortable, searchable online database of campaign finance donations to candidates for select 2010 races.
  • What can I learn? Sort by race, candidate's name, amount and date of campaign contribution, and donor's occupation, employer and hometown. Races include Congressional District 11, governor, Assembly District 15, and Contra Costa County assessor, sheriff, district attorney and two Board of Supervisor seats.
  • Where do I find it? ContraCostaTimes.Com/campaign-finance
  • Will there be more? Yes. The Times will continue to add races and data.
  • How did we do it? Reporter Daniel Willis scanned paper campaign finance reports from local and congressional candidates, applied conversion software and transferred the data into an Access database. For the Assembly candidates, he downloaded the data from Cal-Access, the state's campaign finance database.
  • Caveats? The quality of the data depends on the accuracy of the filers. In other words, if a candidate or her treasurer misspelled a name, it will be misspelled in this database.