WINNETKA, IL — Winnetka Park District officials scrapped plans for a benefit at the AC Nielsen Tennis Center to raise funds for a Ukraine-related nonprofit after the district’s attorney warned it would violate the Illinois Constitution.
Alexander Shubny, the district’s tennis director and a native of Ukraine, hoped to organize a round-robin tennis exhibition with pros from the area next week to provide support to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion of the country.
“I know the people, who they are,” Shubny told Patch prior to the event’s cancellation. “What can I do to help them to survive? So I came with the idea to do the fundraiser with tennis pros. Get on the court, get people, try to make money, and the foundation [to] which the money will go is called Sunflower of Peace.”
Admission would have cost $10, with all proceeds set to be donated to the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit foundation, which provides backpacks, first-aid supplies and other items needed to survive in extreme conditions to Ukrainian soldiers, citizens and volunteers.
After spending the last quarter-century as a tennis pro in Winnetka, Shubny is now a US citizen and the Nielsen Center’s longest-tenured employee.
“Who could imagine in 2022 that this could happen to the world,” Shubny said. “It’s insanity, and the biggest thing is that [Putin] just doesn’t care what it takes. He doesn’t care about his people, he doesn’t care about people he’s attacking.”
Shubny said his older cousin, who was like an older brother to him while growing up, still lives in Lviv. While the Western Ukrainian city has not suffered bombing as intense as areas closer to the Russian border, periodic air raid sirens have been forced his family members to take shelter, he said.
“The most dangerous thing is that [Putin] is using power against innocent people — he’s bombing schools, he’s bombing hospitals,” he said. “It’s scary, and I think it’s unbelievable how a lot of people support what’s going on.”
Park district officials publicly announced the fundraiser publicly on Friday morning, but decided to cancel it within less than a day.
Pat Fragassi, manager of the AC Nielsen Tennis Center, said staff received a couple of calls about the cause within hours, which led them to check with lawyers for the district.
“Under the advice of our attorney, as much as he understood the plight and the cause that we’re trying to support our co-worker with, we were advised that we could not move forward with this one,” Fragassi said.
Attorney Steve Adams, a partner at Robbins Schwartz, said the planned benefit was constitutionally problematic because the park district itself had been arranging the event itself.
Adams said the Illinois Constitution’s prohibition on the private use of public funds prohibits the district from hosting the benefit itself, although park districts are permitted to rent out their facilities to outside groups for recreational activities, including fundraisers, as long as any staff time is volunteered or paid for.
“In those cases, the park district is fairly compensated for the use of the facility, and it’s promoting a recreational activity, in this case a tennis exhibition, and the outside group is responsible for any claims or injuries that occur during the event within our purpose,” Adams said. “It’s not private use of public funds.”
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John Peterson, executive director of the Winnetka Park District, told Patch that every park district employee wanted to do the event, which had been scheduled for the evening of March 18. But the district was unable to move forward with it as planned without using taxpayer fund.
“We’ve been very thoughtful in trying to do it and also very thoughtful in recognizing that we can’t do it in a manner that’s respectful of everybody’s interests,” Peterson said. “But we’re at a point here where we can’t do it.”
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Shubny said the aspect of the conflict that is most being overlooked is the separation of families as people flee the country. According to the United Nations, more than 2 million people have become refugees in the first two weeks of the conflict. An unknown number are internally displaced.
“More than that, it’s just women and children. When you look at the women’s eyes, the children’s eyes, how much fear and how much street they’ve got, and the men sacrifice their families, just because they have to defend the country ,” he said. “I think people see, but it’s hard to understand.”