Making a difference

Featured: Making a difference

Making a difference

Diane Marlin loves Urbana.

Story: Christine Walsh

Photos: Christine Walsh

Diane Marlin loves Urbana.

As you look around the mayor’s office, you see various kinds of artwork related to the city.

A resident of Urbana since 1971, Marlin grew up on a LaSalle County farm that had been in her family since the 1860s. “You learned how to work hard and be pretty self-sufficient,” she said. “We spent a lot of time outdoors. It gave me an appreciation for the land and for the role of farming in the economy.”

The family lived about three and a half miles outside of Streator, so her siblings were usually her playmates. “You were doing a lot of things with family,” she said. “You learn to appreciate good neighbors what good neighbors are and that good friends depend on each other.”

Marlin earned her bachelor’s degree in human development from the University of Illinois, originally intending to go into early childhood education. “I always loved children,” Marlin said.

But during her sophomore year, she joined Students for Environmental Concerns and met people who were fighting to save Allerton Park from flooding, as well as the Middle Fork River near Danville. “It changed the course of my life,” Marlin said. “That was a profound influence on my life.”

She then completed her master’s degree in foods and nutrition. “Food is health, and I have a great interest in health,” Marlin said.

Marlin taught part-time at Parkland College for several years and then worked as the coordinator of research programs in the UI’s Family Resiliency Center. “I kind of came full circle,” she said.

All along, Marlin was active in the community, as a classroom volunteer, serving on the Friends of Urbana Schools Referendum Committee, as co-chair of the District 116 facilities planning committee and as president of the Urbana High School PTSA, Urbana High School Music Boosters, Leal School PTA and Cooperative Nursery School. “I was deeply involved in the schools,” she said.

“You don’t get a degree in being in public office,” Marlin said. “You bring everything you do to your job.”

Marlin and her husband, John, moved from Nevada Street to south Urbana in 2004. The people in the neighborhood were getting increasingly concerned about the deterioration of rental property and an increase in crime in the Philo Road area, as well as the development of Orchard Downs and decided to form the Southeast Urbana Neighborhood Association. Marlin started working closely with city officials. When Lynne Barnes decided not to run for re-election to the city council, she encouraged Marlin to think about running. “She was wonderful,” Marlin said. “I decided to give it a try.”

Marlin ended up serving two terms. “I learned a tremendous amount,” she said. “I saw things we needed to be doing differently and could be doing better.”

Marlin has no plans to run for higher public office, and enjoys being able to serve her community as mayor. “You have direct contact with your constituents,” she said. “This is the best elected position. It’s just so satisfying. You actually get things done. The higher you go, the harder it is to make a difference.”

One of Marlin’s goals for Urbana is to have sustainable growth and development. “I came in with some goals,” she said. “It’s just fascinating. You learn something new every day. I love the people. I make it a point to get out to hear what people are concerned about.”

Marlin has had to address financial challenges, personnel changes and infrastructure needs, updating policies and procedures and growing the city’s tax base so that the burden isn’t so heavy on property taxpayers. She’s in charge of a staff of 250 employees. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Marlin said. “Number one is having enough time in the day; it’s a 24/7 job.”

Marlin’s vision for Urbana’s future is for it to be “on a sound financial footing.” “I want it to be a place where people want to live and work and do things.”

Marlin points to her family as her greatest accomplishment. “My kids and grandkids are terrific,” she said. “I’m proud of what they’re doing and the people they are. Everything else is second to that.”

Marlin is proud of her public service, too, including being appointed to the Mahomet Aquifer Task Force in 2017. “I can look back and say I helped make a difference,” she said.

Marlin has never considered leaving Urbana. “I have roots here,” she said. “It’s just been a great place to live. So much of the world is here.”

One of Marlin’s interests is traveling, and favorite locales include Ireland, Italy and Seoul, South Korea. “I love the Rocky Mountains,” she said. “And I want to go back to Alaska. I’d love to go to Africa.”

Some of Marlin’s travels have been through Rotary; she was the Urbana club’s 20916-17 president. “They’re dedicated to service in the community,” she said. “They’ve pretty much wiped out polio.”

Marlin will likely seek re-election in 2021. “I’ve got a very long to-do list,” she said.

Marlin has no regrets. “I don’t like to look back,” she said. “I don’t run around making promises. I work as hard as I can to the best of my ability for the good of the community.”

Marlin gives some of the credit for her success to the people she has brought along with her. “You roll up your sleeves and you just do the work,” she said. “Talk is cheap. You have to be willing to put in the time and effort. Some people told me, ‘You’re too nice to be mayor.’ But being nice doesn’t mean you don’t have a backbone. And you make sure you have the right people working with you.”

Marlin advises other women who are thinking about making a bold move, “Jump in and do this.” She admits that when Barnes first suggested she run for office that she didn’t know if she could do it. “You bring your life experiences to the table,” she said. “It’s looking at things from a different point of view. You can make a contribution.”

Marlin thinks it will take the kind of one-on-one encouragement she had to get more women running for public office. She notes that in Urbana alone there are 26 different boards and committees with a total of 190 seats that need to be filled at any given time. She pointed out that local governmental election races are often uncontested. “This is a community-wide issue,” Marlin said.