Pogany removed from SOVCA board

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Leslie Pogany, owner of Bunny’s Sports Bar in South Orange, was removed from the South Orange Village Center Alliance’s board of directors on June 12 following a vote via Zoom meeting. The vote was 10-2 — the nay votes were from Maurice Blackwell, who represents residents on the board, and Pogany herself.

Pogany and her restaurant have faced serious backlash from the South Orange–Maplewood community after a May 8 incident in which Ryan Pogany, Leslie Pogany’s son, allegedly used racial slurs toward a black woman and her father.

According to reports, as well as video of part of the incident, Ryan Pogany is accused of approaching Catherine “C.J.” Burgess, of Maplewood, and her father, Aubrey Burgess, a South Orange business owner, and aggressively yelling expletives and racial slurs at the pair as they attempted to jumpstart their stalled vehicle. According to C.J. Burgess in a Facebook post following the incident, Ryan Pogany told the pair to go back to their country, physically threatened them and demanded they move their stalled car immediately. The video shows Ryan Pogany yelling expletives and telling the pair to move their car, but does not show him uttering any racial slurs. The Burgesses have since filed a report with the South Orange Police Department.

In a May 15 post on the Bunny’s Facebook page, shortly after the alleged incident went public, Leslie Pogany denied the allegations.

“To all of my loyal patrons and friends who have contacted me in support, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your words of kindness and care,” she wrote. “The terrible things that some people are saying and spreading are false. Everyone stay safe and be well. I hope to provide you with a hospitable environment to break quarantine in the not-too-distant future.”

Following the incident, a petition was started on change.org to boycott Bunny’s, as well as urge SOVCA to remove Leslie Pogany from its board; SOMA recreation departments and SOMA youth sports to sever ties with the restaurant, which is a major sponsor; and Essex County freeholders to revoke the Italian American Heritage honor given to Leslie Pogany in October 2019.

The SOMA Against Hate Collective, which comprises community and religious leaders in the two towns, also demanded that Leslie Pogany be removed from the SOVCA board.

Following the vote to remove her from the board, Leslie Pogany criticized the SOVCA board for bowing to outside pressure.

“I am totally dismayed that this organization would consider being pressured by outside sources to have me removed as a member of this board based on unproven and unprovable accusations that are patently untrue. But I’ve come to learn that truth has no home here. This is about mob justice, appeasing the crowd. The organization has lost its innocence and its legitimacy,” Leslie Pogany said. “You should be ashamed. You will have to live with this on your conscience. My conscience is clear. Just remember this: If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.”

SOVCA sent a statement to the News-Record on June 14 defending the board’s decision to remove Leslie Pogany.

“As the board of directors of the South Orange Village Center Alliance it is our responsibility to further its collective mission to strengthen South Orange’s downtown for all stakeholders: businesses, commercial property owners, residents and visitors,” the SOVCA statement read. “Being chosen to serve as a director of SOVCA is an honor and privilege and comes with responsibilities and accountability. It is the responsibility of all directors to further our board’s mission and goals. If that conflicts with personal/professional business then it is incumbent for a director to either: a) work to find a solution, b) recuse oneself from a certain activity or c) leave the board.”

“On Friday, June 12, SOVCA voted to remove Leslie Pogany from our board. As reflected in our 10-2 vote, there was clear consensus by the board that Ms. Pogany’s response to the May 8 incident did not reflect the ownership and sensitivity that SOVCA felt was appropriate,” the statement continued. “SOVCA’s board is a collective of impassioned volunteers who come together and spend countless hours to proudly serve our business district for our diverse stakeholders. As volunteers we have a limited bandwidth of both our resources and time. SOVCA was not a party to the event of May 8, but the event was impacting our ability to be effective in our diverse community that we love. We had hoped that Ms. Pogany would see the difference between an issue that she is personally and professionally involved in versus one that was negatively impacting our organization’s ability to execute against its mission.

“We thank Ms. Pogany for all her years of service, contributions and countless hours dedicated to our board and the South Orange business community. We look forward to refocusing on the strength and vitality of our organization and the needs of our diverse stakeholders as we look to play a significant role in reopening our village,” the statement concluded.

SOVCA Executive Director Julie Doran also denied that the alliance cowed to “mob justice.”

“We disagree with the allegation that SOVCA submitted to actions based on outside pressure deeming it ‘mob justice,’” Doran told the News-Record. “We pursued this action deliberately and based on what we thought correct for the organization and its stakeholders. Much time and thoughtfulness went into the steps that the board took, and the resulting vote of 10 to remove to 2 nays demonstrates a clear alignment of thought on the matter. Now we must move our attention to the focus of assisting our business community to reopen successfully.”